Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 30, 2014

Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495

Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Again Denied Endangered Species Protection

Trout Gone From 89 Percent of Range in New Mexico, Colorado, Still Declining

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— In a reversal of a 2008 finding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today denied the highly imperiled Rio Grande cutthroat trout of New Mexico and Colorado a place on the list of endangered species.

“I’m so disappointed our government just left the Rio Grande cutthroat high and dry,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which first petitioned to save the trout in 1998. “This iconic trout desperately needs the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving measures, and if this unwise decision stands, future generations may never see this beautiful, muscular fish leap from the water to gulp a hovering dragonfly.”

With deep crimson slashes on its throat — hence the name “cutthroat” — the Rio Grande cutthroat trout is New Mexico’s state fish. It once swam the cool, clear waterways in the Rio Grande Basin, including its tributary the Pecos River, as well as the Canadian River in northeastern New Mexico, but is now limited to 11 percent of its historic range. Because of a recently adopted policy first developed under the Bush administration, this extensive loss of historic range was not considered as a factor in whether the trout warrants endangered status.

“This is yet another species denied protection because of the Obama administration's disastrous policy on ‘significant portion of range,’ “ said Greenwald. “The trout is gone from 89 percent of its historic range and expected to decline further, yet still it somehow doesn’t deserve to be protected as endangered — that shows how wrongheaded this policy really is.”

The “significant portion of range” policy states that a species’ historic range does not have to be considered when determining if a species is endangered in a significant portion of its range. 

Most surviving Rio Grande cutthroat trout populations are too small and too isolated from other populations to be likely to survive, and many also do not consist of purebred Rio Grande cutthroats, but are hybridized with nonnative rainbow trout. Logging, road building, livestock grazing, pollution, hybridization and global warming are combining to push Rio Grande cutthroat toward extinction.

Today’s decision is inconsistent with the Service’s 2008 finding that the trout needed federal protection, in part because in the intervening years conditions for the fish have actually worsened. For example, persistent drought is contributing to stand-replacing forest fires, which burn trees that would otherwise shade trout streams; silt deposition from post-fire erosion can kill trout and smother their eggs.

Today’s decision accepts fish with as much as 10 percent hybridization as contributing to the Rio Grande cutthroat’s long-term survival, whereas the Service’s 2008 review only considered fish with less than 1 percent hybridization to contribute to conservation of this native fish.

The Fish and Wildlife Service justifies not placing the Rio Grande cutthroat trout on the endangered species list in part because of conservation efforts undertaken and planned by New Mexico’s and Colorado’s game departments. While actions such as last year’s emergency relocation of a trout population threatened by a fire in northern New Mexico are vital, the necessity of such emergency actions demonstrates how endangered these fish truly are.

In total the Fish and Wildlife Service could identify only 55 populations that could be considered marginally secure based on absence of nonnative trout, number of fish and stream length occupied, but even these still face threats from stochastic events such as fires or drought, climate change and habitat destruction. 

Read more about the Center’s work to save Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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