Virgin River spinedace caught in the crosshairs of endangered species lawsuit

File photo: park biologists study the Virgin River spinedace in Zion National Park, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

ST. GEORGEAfter more than a quarter century of conservation efforts, the future of a small Virgin River fish species remains embattled following a Nov. 17 notice filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Virgin River spinedace are native fish found only in the titular river and its tributaries, location unspecified, March 3, 2008 | Photo courtesy of Rick Fridell/Utah Division of Wildlife, St. George News

The Virgin River spinedace is a minnow species found only in the Virgin River and its tributaries. Often compared to trout in color, shape and behavior, the four-inch fish differs primarily in its diminutive size and distribution.

The Center for Biological Diversity announced its intent to sue the wildlife agency for denying protections to four species – including spinedace – and delaying protections for six others.

“Our best tool for addressing the extinction crisis in the U.S. is the Endangered Species Act, but unfortunately the fish and wildlife service has become really sluggish in implementing the act,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director. “They’re not moving quickly enough to protect species that are in need, and they’re often denying species that are clearly imperiled like the spinedace.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on any pending litigation. However, in a September news release the agency announced that endangered species protection was not warranted for 17 species previously under review. Increased distribution and population density in the case of spinedace justified the decision to not list the species, per the release.

Greenwald said the agency’s decision did not take into account the best available information and did not consider the long-term threats to the spinedace.

The Virgin River flowing through the high mountain desert, location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

“One of the main problems we see with the decision was that in looking at the impacts of climate change, they only looked 20 years in the future,” he said. “There’s going to be more severe droughts, there’s going to be loss in streamflow and at the same time St. George is growing so there’s going to be more demand for water.”

Continued growth coupled with a lack of large-scale conservation efforts will cause lower streamflow and higher temperatures in the Virgin River and its tributaries. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that continuing water availability is a serious challenge facing the spinedace, but the agency has reiterated its commitment to existing partnerships rather than pursuing federal intervention.

Virgin Spinedace Conservation Agreement and Strategy

Spinedace recovery has been a goal shared by the federal agencies, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and other local organizations since 1995. After initially seeking protection under the Endangered Species Act, the collaborating organizations instead signed on to the Virgin Spinedace Conservation Agreement and Strategy.

File photo: Scientists survey Virgin River spinedace in Zion National Park, Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Zion Forever Project, St. George News

Martin Schijf, native aquatics biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife, has worked with spinedace and other Virgin River species for 15 years. He said the conservation plan has been a success thanks in large part to partnerships with local organizations like the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

“When the conservation agreement was established, spinedace distribution throughout the basin had declined to about 60% of its historic distribution,” Schijf said. “Because of the agreement and the partnerships developed under it, spinedace now occupy more than 90% of their historical habitat. That’s a direct result of conservation efforts implemented under the conservation agreement.”

While state and federal efforts to restore spinedace to their original range have been largely successful so far, there are still some areas of concern.

Native Aquatics Biologist Christian Edwards, also with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said spinedace are remarkably resilient and well-adapted to their native desert environment – but they can only do so much in the face of some human-caused challenges.

“One of the biggest declines that we’ve seen over the years is in Ash Creek and the Santa Clara River,” Edwards said. “Those are areas where water being diverted leads to low streamflow, but they also have a particularly high number of beavers. Beavers are usually good for an ecosystem, but beaver dams make big huge pools that provide refuge for non-native fish like bullhead and green sunfish that outcompete the spinedace.”

To protect the spinedace, Edwards and Schijf said implementing water conservation measures would be vital to ensuring that spinedace don’t lose what little habitat they currently occupy.

In this 2017 file photo, a sign at Brooks Pond in St. George advises visitors not to dump their pet fish into the water, St. George, Utah | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

In addition, the average Southern Utah resident can help spinedace by ensuring non-native fish aren’t introduced through dumping pet fish or releasing sport fish into local ponds and streams.

However, the Center for Biological Diversity remains skeptical that necessary changes will be made before it’s too late.

“The problem is that the state division of wildlife doesn’t control how water is used,” Greenwald said. “They don’t have the ability to ensure there’s minimum stream flows or anything like that. The reality is that St. George has to change its practices – there’s only a finite amount of water in the desert, and the Washington County Water Conservancy District can’t just continue to pretend that’s not the case.”

Securing federal protection for Virgin River spinedace would grant managing agencies more regulatory power, preventing local agencies and municipalities from overdrawing water, Greenwald said.

While they may disagree on the particulars, Greenwald and wildlife managers at least agree on the importance of seeing spinedace persist in their natural habitat. Spinedace help balance the ecosystem by eating insects and removing debris from the river. If their populations were to collapse, the water quality of the Virgin River could decline, which would become abundantly clear to local residents that rely on the river for drinking water. 

But for Schijf, their value extends beyond their utility.  

“They evolved here in this ecosystem, and they’re part of the natural heritage of this area,” Schijf said. “They have intrinsic value just for being what they are. We should be stewards of these species to ensure that they persist in these streams, they don’t go extinct and we provide conservation measures to make sure they’re thriving.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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