Albuquerque–The fate of a dozen desert fish species native to the Gila River basin is in jeopardy because state and federal agencies are not implementing promised recovery steps, according to a new report by the Desert Fishes Team, an independent group of current and retired agency and academic fishery biologists. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) today posted this publicly-released report on their website to make it widely available.
Six Gila River basin fish species are already gone from the basin and another six are listed as in danger by federal and state agencies. In a status report on these dozen imperiled fish, the biologists found that while the official agency recovery plans are adequate the responsible agencies are not carrying out those plans. As a consequence, species such as the desert pupfish, the Gila chub, the squawfish and the spikedace, continue to decline.
The report, entitled Status of Federal and State Listed Warm Water Fishes of the Gila River Basin, With Recommendations For Management, gives specific actions needed to secure recovery of the fish, including removal of exotic fish species, restocking native populations and eliminating grazing in critical creeks and streams. The report documents the lack of successful recovery actions and stresses that the plans have been in place but what is lacking is the promised follow-through by the responsible wildlife protection, land management and water resource agencies.
The responsible agencies, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, continue to hold meetings but implement few of the agreed upon, according to the report. This report was prepared by the independent Desert Fishes Team to continue work of an international scientific advisory group, the Desert Fishes Recovery Team, that the Fish and Wildlife Service disbanded last year, declaring its work “complete.”
“Arizona is on a path to have all of its native fish go extinct unless state and federal agencies start doing, rather than just talking about, their jobs,” stated Southwest PEER Coordinator Leon Fager, a long-time threatened and endangered species biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. “The recent court ruling affecting Rio Grande River flows in New Mexico to save the silvery minnow, another endangered desert fish, is exactly the sort of ecological train wreck that agency inaction is pushing Arizona toward.”
The deteriorating situation for desert fish is not confined to Arizona’s Gila River basin. No species of fish in the southwest is doing well and many are rapidly sliding toward extinction. For most desert fish, “recovery” consists of stabilizing and enhancing existing populations and improving and restocking habitats that can be made suitable. For technical and political reasons, large areas of southwestern streams, springs, and cienegas can never again support native fish. According to the report, the most urgent need is for control and removal of nonnative fish that compete with and eat the native species. . However, controlling the spread of nonnatives, particularly those popular for sport, aquaculture, aquarium or backyard pond fish appears to be more easily said than done.