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Conservation Groups Push for Devils River Minnow Habitat Protection

Endangered listing and critical habitat designation sought from Fish and Wildlife Service


Robert Corbin, private landowner: (512) 632-0314
Dr. Nicole Rosmarino, Forest Guardians: (505) 988-9126 x156
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity: (510) 499-9185
John Fritschie, Save Our Springs Alliance: (512) 477-2320

Conservation groups today filed a lawsuit against the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) seeking increased protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the Devils River minnow (Dionda diaboli), a highly imperiled freshwater fish surviving in only three tributaries to the Rio Grande in southern Texas and one drainage in northern Mexico. Forest Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) filed suit in federal district court in New Mexico, challenging the FWS’s designation of the minnow as threatened rather than endangered under the ESA and failure to designate critical habitat for the species.

Robert Corbin, owner of 1,300 acres on one mile of river front on the Devil's River and a SOSA board member said, “As a river front landowner committed to protecting our spring and river flows, I see a win-win situation, where critical habitat designation can help recover the minnow and will assure local communities that our water is not polluted or exported.”

The Devils River minnow, a small freshwater fish with a wedge-shaped spot on its tail and a distinct lateral stripe, inhabits small spring-fed streams with fast flowing water. Once one of the most abundant of native fishes in southern Texas, the minnow is now one of the least abundant fish species. Within the U.S., the minnow currently survives in very limited locations in three tributaries to the Rio Grande; the middle Devils River, Pinto Creek, and San Felipe Creek and may also persist in the Río Salado in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“The Devils River Minnow is on the knife’s edge of extinction. Designation of critical habitat for this imperiled fish is long overdue and vital,” stated Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of Forest Guardians. “Protecting habitat for the minnow will also help safeguard the Rio Grande ecosystem it inhabits.”

Surveys have demonstrated a massive decline in population and reduction in range of the Devils River minnow due to habitat loss from dam construction, spring dewatering, and other stream modifications. Introductions of non-native fish such as smallmouth bass and armored catfish have contributed to collapse of the minnow population in Devils River, through direct predation, competition for food and destruction of suitable habitat. Imminent threats to the minnow include degradation of water quality from reduced stream flow and stream channel modifications from irrigation, bank stabilization and flood control projects. These changes, in concert with drought, have degraded native fish habitat.

“Additional Endangered Species Act protections are needed to recover the Devils River minnow and protect the natural heritage of the Rio Grande watershed,” said Jeff Miller, wildlife advocate with the CBD. “Of all currently listed endangered species, those with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to have improving population trends.”

Although first proposed for endangered listing under the ESA in 1978, the Devils River minnow was not listed until 1999, as a threatened species. The minnow population has decreased immensely and suffered significant range reduction since first collected in 1951. The lawsuit alleges that the FWS violated the ESA by failing to use the best available science in designating the minnow as threatened rather than endangered and by refusing to designate critical habitat for the minnow, falsely asserting it would not be beneficial to the species. The FWS ignored the fact that critical habitat provides additional protections beyond listing and is an important tool for recovering endangered species.

“For centuries, San Felipe Springs and Fort Clark Springs and other waters of Val Verde and Kinney Counties have sustained human settlement as well as fish and other wildlife. In its last session, the Texas Legislature did not provide protection to the springs and instead threatened to negate protections afforded by the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District. Unfortunately, lawsuits like this are necessary to force federal and state government to protect vital wildlife habitat,” notes Brad Rockwell, SOSA Deputy Director.

Forest Guardians works to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a science-based environmental advocacy organization that works to protect endangered species and wild places throughout the world through science, policy, education, citizen activism and environmental law.

SOSA is a non-profit organization that seeks to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and its unique endemic fauna. SOSA is a member of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (, a coalition of local conservation organizations spanning the entire Edwards Aquifer region.

The conservation groups are represented by attorneys and students at the University of Denver College of Law’s Environmental Law Clinical Partnership.


Background Information:

The Devils River minnow has been completely eliminated from several areas in southern Texas, including the lower portions of the Devils River due to construction of Amistad Reservoir, the Upper Devils River due to lack of stream flows and Las Moras Creek due to damming in the area, and has also been extirpated from the Río San Carlos in Mexico.

Critical habitat provides protection of areas not currently occupied by the species and protects critical habitat from adverse modification. A peer-reviewed study in the April 2005 issue of BioScience, “The Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: A Quantitative Analysis,” concludes that species with critical habitat designated for two or more years are more than twice as likely to have improving population trends than species without.

FWS approved a final recovery plan for the Devils River Minnow in September, which relies exclusively on voluntary recommendations. The groups believe the plan is insufficient not only for recovery, but to prevent the minnow’s extinction.

The Devils River minnow is part of a unique fish fauna in the area where the Chihuahuan Desert, Edwards Plateau, and South Texas Brush ecoregions join. Fishes in this area have been heavily impacted by human water use and introduced species, and half of the native fishes of the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas and Mexico are considered imperiled, with four species already having gone extinct. In 2003, the Rio Grande was rated by American Rivers as one of the most endangered rivers in the U.S.


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