Saving Southwest Aquatic and Riparian Species
The arid lands of the American Southwest are crisscrossed with lush ribbons of rivers, springs and wetlands supporting a rich diversity of aquatic and riparian species now facing an extinction crisis: 51 species are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. New Mexico alone has 33 — more than the total number of listed species in at least 29 other states and Washington, D.C. combined. The Southwest also has 26 listed fishes —about one-fifth of the U.S. total.
Many Southwest species have already gone extinct, including the Rio Grande bluntnose shiner, Phantom shiner, Monkey Springs pupfish, Hot Springs cotton rat and Stephan’s rifle beetle. Without swift action, many more will follow in just decades.
The main threat to these species is habitat loss and degradation due to livestock grazing, water extraction and diversion, climate change, drought, wildfires, energy production and mining, development, and transportation infrastructure. They’re also threatened by nonnative species that prey on, bring diseases to, and compete and hybridize with native species, plus pollution, unregulated recreation and more. Making matters worse, species with small, isolated or limited-range populations are more vulnerable to random events and genetic concerns.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act has been a lifeline to imperiled Southwest aquatic and riparian species. For example, when Gila trout were listed as endangered in 1967, they had dwindled to just four populations due to nonnative trout introduction, habitat degradation and other threats. After recovery actions like the removal of nonnative fish and grazing protections, the species was downlisted from endangered to threatened and now has 17 populations. The Gila topminnow and Yaqui chub have also substantially grown their U.S. populations since listing.
Despite these successes, many species continue to decline, hang by a thread, or face persistent threats. A pint-sized fish called the spikedace, native to the Gila River basin and the only species in the genus Meda, was listed as threatened in 1986. When its range had shrunk by at least 90%, its numbers declined, and livestock grazing and other threats persisted, this unique fish was uplisted to endangered in 2012, but grazing is still a major threat, especially in the Gila and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests and the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area.
Also threatened by grazing — along with poor water management and other factors — is the tiny New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, which hibernates longer than most mammals and needs very specific habitat to breed and accumulate fat reserves for the winter. It was listed in 2014 due to significant habitat loss, but populations are still too small and isolated to persist in the long term, and grazing is still a big problem, most notably in the Lincoln National Forest.
Other listed species in desperate need of help include the loach minnow, Gila chub, Huachuca water umbel, Arkansas River shiner, woundfin, Yaqui catfish, bonytail chub, narrow-headed gartersnake, zunibluehead sucker and chupadera springsnail.
Alarmingly, many of the 51 species aren’t even adequately monitored. The tiny Socorro springsnail, found at just one New Mexico spring, hasn’t been monitored since 1991, though it’s assumed to have declined due to its vulnerability to threats and inability to relocate to new habitat. And because of border-security concerns, there’s no regular monitoring of the tenacious, somewhat chubby-looking Sonora chub, listed in 1986. This fish also has no rigorous monitoring protocol.
Recovery Plan Development and Implementation
The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement recovery plans for all animals and plants it protects. Of the 51 Southwest aquatic and riparian species, 13 — including the Arkansas river shiner, Gila chub and New Mexico meadow jumping mouse — lack a final recovery plan. Of those with plans, 22 were written before 2011 and 12 before 2001.
We found that the Service tracked the implementation of recovery plans for 38 of the 51 species; for approximately 76% of those species — including the Southwestern willow flycatcher and spikedace — between 0 and less than 10% of their plan’s recovery actions were noted as complete, indicating that most aren’t getting the action they need to survive and recover.
Protection under the Endangered Species Act is critical — but it’s not everything.
To avoid the extinction of the region’s 51 listed species and others, riparian areas need substantial increases in funding to support grazing protections, habitat restoration, invasive species removal, water conservation, and basic monitoring and recovery planning. The Extinction Crisis Emergency Act will provide funding to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, while the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and the Extinction Prevention Act will provide much-needed funding for state and tribal endangered species recovery efforts.
Recent legal settlements with the Forest Service show that its regional office is committed to improving its grazing program to protect listed species and address fundamental problems with ecosystem health and monitoring. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management specifically need more funding to help them protect and recover listed species dependent on the regions’ rivers and springs.
Headquartered in the Southwest, the Center's biologists, attorneys and activists have been working for the region's aquatic and riparian species for decades. Our Endangered Species program has successfully advocated for listing a number of them — including the southwestern willow flycatcher, spikedace, loach minnow and Chiricahua leopard frog — as well as for protecting their critical habitat and implementing recovery plans. Meanwhile our Public Lands program works against major Southwest threats like urban sprawl, poor water management harming desert oases like Arizona's Verde River, and destructive livestock grazing — against which we won a major victory with our 2021 legal settlement compelling the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service to protect rivers and streams in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico from cattle.