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Rio Grande cutthroat trout
Santa Fe New Mexican, June 16, 2015

Group threatens suit over denial of protections for Rio Grande cutthroat trout
By Margaret Wright

A wildlife conservation group has put the federal government on notice that a decision last fall to deny Endangered Species Act protections to New Mexico’s struggling state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, will soon be greeted by a lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity announced Tuesday that it and other interested parties plan to file suit in 60 days against the Department of the Interior’s Secretary Sally Jewell in her oversight role for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The organization’s letter claims sections of the Endangered Species Act were violated when the agency decided last September that listing the cutthroat trout subspecies as endangered isn’t warranted.

The move was an about-face from a May 2008 finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service that the listing was warranted but with lower priority than other threatened species.

“The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has already been wiped out from most of the streams where it once flourished and faces a multitude of ongoing threats,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has for far too long denied this iconic trout the Endangered Species Act protection it desperately needs to survive.”

Lesli Gray, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest regional office, said agency officials couldn’t comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

The cutthroat trout subspecies historically proliferated in cold-water streams from Colorado to Southern New Mexico in the Rio Grande, Pecos and Canadian River Basins. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the fish live today in isolated headwaters, occupying only an estimated 11 percent of their historical range. The agency also determined that the subspecies’ resiliency has declined in the last 50 years, in large part due to the introduction of non-native trout.

“There’s really nothing to indicate that it’s any better off than it was in 2008 or 2013,” Greenwald told The New Mexican on Tuesday. “There’s really no basis for their reversal. In fact, in the findings, they actually concluded that the trout is going to decline further under even the most optimistic scenarios.”

Parties to the planned lawsuit hope that courts set aside last year’s decision and force the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a new determination based on the best available science, he said.

The decision to refuse federal protections for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout hinged on a policy change enacted in June last year that redefined key terms in the Endangered Species Act, Greenwald said. He said the law defined an endangered species as any animal at risk for extinction in all or significant portions of its habitat range, but the final federal policy changed that.

“[Federal officials] say they consider a portion of range significant … only if the loss of the portion would endanger the species as a whole,” he said.

The trout has vanished from all the larger streams within its range and from all the streams that connect small, isolated populations, Greenwald said. “It’s clear that the streams the trout has vanished from are highly significant.”


© Copyright 2015, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe, NM.

This article originally appeared here.

Jeffrey pine photo by John Villinski.