Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 30, 2016

Contact:  Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495,

Virgin River Spinedace One Step Closer to Endangered Species Protection

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

ST. GEORGE, Utah— The Center for Biological Diversity today reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requiring the agency to determine by 2021 whether the Virgin River spinedace warrants Endangered Species Act protection. The spinedace is a silvery fish that was once common throughout the Virgin River basin in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, but has lost more than half its range to falling river levels caused by increased water use, pollution and streamside habitat destruction. In response to a 2012 petition from the Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined last year that the spinedace may warrant protection.

Virgin River spinedace
Photo courtesy Utan Department of Wildlife Resources. Photos are available for media use.

“Virgin River spinedace desperately need protection under the Endangered Species Act to have any chance of long-term survival,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. “And saving the spinedace will save the Virgin River, for fish and people alike.”

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 that strategy failed to slow the increase of threats, and the fish has not recovered.

“Despite the conservation agreement, agency officials are still creating unnaturally low flows in the Virgin River that harm spinedace, other endangered fish and the health of the river,” said Greenwald.

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, giving 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, with the years in which they will get a decision, include the monarch butterfly (2019), alligator snapping turtle (2020), California spotted owl (2019), Northern Rockies fisher (2017), foothill yellow-legged frog (2020), Canoe Creek pigtoe (2020), beaverpond marstonia (2017), cobblestone tiger beetle (2019) and Barrens topminnow (2017). Under the settlement 147 species have gained protection to date, and 35 species have been proposed for protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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