Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 16, 2016

Contact:  Tanya Sanerib, (971) 717-6407,

Lawsuit Filed to Protect Virgin River Spinedace

Wasteful Water Use, Habitat Loss in Washington County Continue to Imperil Southern Utah Fish

ST. GEORGE, Utah— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the Virgin River spinedace under the Endangered Species Act. The spinedace is a silvery fish that was once common throughout the Virgin River basin in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah. But it has lost more than half its range due to falling river levels caused by increased water use, pollution and streamside habitat destruction.

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

In September, in response to a 2012 petition from the Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the spinedace may warrant protection. But the agency is now more than three years late on a 12-month deadline to propose protection or determine Endangered Species Act protections are not warranted.

“Virgin River spinedace have been denied Endangered Species Act protections for far too long,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney at the Center. “Protecting the spinedace from extinction will also help safeguard the health of Utah’s waterways for people and wildlife.”

The spinedace was proposed for protection as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. The Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew the proposed listing in 1996 in response to a conservation agreement between local, state and federal agencies. But since the strategy was developed, threats have increased and the fish has not recovered.

“Despite the spinedace conservation agreement, agency officials are still allowing unnaturally low flows in the Virgin River that are harming spinedace, other endangered fish and the river as a whole,” said Sanerib.

The Virgin River spinedace is a medium-sized fish with black speckles. 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.

The spinedace is found in several reaches of the Virgin and its tributaries primarily in Washington County, 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. On average Washington County uses about 152 gallons of water per day, per person. By comparison Las Vegas uses 107 gallons, Tucson uses 92 gallons, and Albuquerque uses 80 gallons — indicating that with more thoughtful management the district can better protect the river with little impact on people.

Under the terms of a 2011 agreement with the Service, the Center can choose 10 species per year for expedited decisions on whether they should receive Endangered Species Act protection. The other nine priority species for 2016 include the monarch butterfly, alligator snapping turtle, wood turtle, California spotted owl, Northern Rockies fisher, foothill yellow-legged frog, Canoe Creek clubshell, beaverpond marstonia and Barrens topminnow. Under the settlement 144 species have gained protection to date, and 36 species have been proposed for protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 990,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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