Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
TYCC member Xavier Lovato helps NMFWCO staff member Jason Davis position large rocks in order to stabilize the bank of the lower Santa Fe River as part of a Fish Passage project on New Mexico’s Cochiti Pueblo.

Indigenous Youth Help USFWS Restore Fish Passage on Cochiti Pueblo

Melanie Dabovich, USFWS

Ask a group of teenagers their idea of fun and you might get answers like hanging out with friends, dodging opponents during a game of laser tag or playing their favorite video games. But for a group of Native American youth from several of New Mexico’s pueblos, fun meant working outside on a warm, sunny day hauling tons of rock with other tribal youth, community volunteers and staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to restore fish passages along the lower Santa Fe River on Cochiti Pueblo.

Above the loud crunch of gravel being shoveled into buckets, with sweat dripping from their brows, their hands rough from a full day’s work of loading and unloading bucket after bucket of crushed rock, one could hear the laughter and camaraderie of the four Tribal Youth Conservation Corp (TYCC) team members: Emmanuel Yepa, 16, of Cochiti Pueblo/Northern Cheyenne; Kuien Quintana, 17, of Cochiti Pueblo, Dominic Bailon, 18, of Santo Domingo Pueblo and Xavier Lovato, 17, of Santo Domingo/Cochiti Pueblo. While fully enjoying and living in the moment as they stabilized the riverbank under the watchful eye of their project advisors, these tribal youth TYCC also have a keen focus on their possible future natural resource careers.

“I really enjoy this type of work here on the river,” said TYCC member Kuien Quintana. “I’m hoping for a career down the road where I get to work in the outdoors. That would be cool.”

TYCC member Dominic Bailon, center, loads up buckets of rock alongside NMFWCO staff members Jason Davis, right, and Kjetal Henderson, left, during a  Fish Passage project on the lower Santa Fe River on New Mexico’s Cochiti Pueblo.  (Photo: USFWS)

The TYCC group, along with a crew of nearly 20 people, including staff from the USFWS New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (NMFWCO) and tribal volunteers, worked to construct low-water fish passage stream crossings and created habitat restoration in order to reduce erosion and river disturbance caused by motorized vehicles and cattle. This three-mile section of the river is home to a small population of Rio Grande suckers and provides habitat for wildlife. Elementary school students previously planted native plants such as long-leaf cottonwoods, roses and willows along the banks, and the pueblo hopes for the potential reintroduction of Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in the river, which was abundant on Cochiti Pueblo prior to the construction of Cochiti Dam in 1969.

Started in 2012, the Tribal Youth Conservation Corps is a USFWS program geared toward Native American high-school students who work on natural resource conservation projects. TYCC programs are hosted by tribes and hire tribal youth to work on their land. Here at Cochiti Pueblo, the program is headed by Kai-t Blue-Sky, a wildlife biologist with Cochiti Pueblo Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Chris Kitcheyan, NMFWCO fish biologist, serves as TYCC program advisor.

Through collaboration with NMFWCO, the Pueblo hopes to establish an outdoor classroom for Native American youth emphasizing not only conservation practices but also culture and language. Tribal elders and members of the tribal community will be involved in the development of the course’s curriculum.


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