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For Immediate Release, November 20, 2012

Contact:  Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Protection Sought for Virgin River Fish Once Common in Parts of Utah, Nevada, Arizona 

17-year-old Conservation Agreement Fails to Protect Struggling Spinedace

SALT LAKE CITY— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition today seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the Virgin River spinedace, a small fish once common throughout the Virgin River basin in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah. It has been lost from more than half its range due primarily to dropping river levels caused by increased withdrawals.

Virgin River spinedace
Virgin River spinedace photo courtesy Utah Division of Water Resources. Photos are available for media use.

“Fish need water. Sadly, so much water is taken out of the Virgin River and its tributaries that the Virgin River spinedace and other native fish are perpetually threatened with extinction,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center.

The spinedace was proposed for protection as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in 1994, and 126 miles of “critical habitat” were proposed for its protection in 1995. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew the proposed listing in 1996 in response to the development of the Virgin River Spinedace Conservation Agreement and Strategy. The goal of the strategy is to return the spinedace to at least 80 percent of its historic habitat and to re-establish enough flow in the river to maintain self-sustaining spinedace populations.

“Seventeen years later, the spinedace conservation agreement has not met its goals. It’s clear that the Virgin River spinedace now needs Endangered Species Act protection to have a long-term shot at survival,” said Curry.

“The Virgin River program is a failure,” said James McMahon, an ecologist who lives on the Santa Clara River, a tributary of the Virgin River. “To save the spinedace and other native fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must step up to the plate and take action to restore natural flows to the Virgin River and its tributaries.”

The Virgin River spinedace is a medium-sized silvery minnow with a brassy sheen and black speckles. It develops orange, red and gold patches during the breeding season. The fin on its back has eight rays, the first two of which are hard, spiny and weakly-fused, which gives the spinedace its name. There are only four species in the spinedace genus. One of them, the Pahranagat spinedace, is extinct, and the other three are at risk of extinction.

Spinedace populations fluctuate based on the amount of available water. The spinedace is found in several reaches of the Virgin and its tributaries including the Santa Clara River, Beaver Dam Wash, Ash Creek, La Verkin Creek, North Creek, Shunes Creek, and the North and East Forks of the Virgin River. Additional habitat within the Virgin River basin could be re-occupied if habitat conditions are improved.

The Virgin River was recently named one of the 10 ecosystems in the country most threatened by water depletion. So much water is taken out of the Virgin River that another endangered fish species, the woundfin, went extinct in the wild in 2005 within its protected “critical habitat.”

“Washington County must change gears, stop putting the tributaries that sustain the Virgin River into pipes, and stop promoting unsustainable sprawl in an arid region,” said McMahon.

“Our country is in the middle of a freshwater extinction crisis,” said Curry. “We have a moral responsibility to be good caretakers of our limited water resources and the species we share them with.” 

From 1900 to 2010 freshwater fish species in North America went extinct at a rate 877 times faster than the historic extinction rate. Based on the fossil record, one freshwater fish species goes extinct every 3 million years, but North America lost 39 species and 18 subspecies to extinction between 1898 and 2006. Freshwater fish in the arid West are extremely vulnerable to extinction under the onslaught of increasing water shortage, human population growth, drought and climate change.

The Service must issue a “90-day finding” on whether today’s petition presents substantial information indicating that the spinedace may qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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