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Feds propose listing two fish species as endangered

Fish and Wildlife wants to re-classify spikedace and loach minnow

Federal authorities plan to designate nearly 800 miles of critical habitat for two threatened fish species in the Southwest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced Wednesday that it wants to change the status of the fish – the spikedace and loach minnow – from "threatened" to "endangered."

The agency's plan, which is subject to public review, would protect 796 miles – approximately the distance between Phoenix and San Francisco – of rivers and streams in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico as habitat for the two species.

"The 'critical habitat' designation is nothing that would restrict anyone's access to these streams," said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the agency.

"I like to think of it as more of a highlighter, that we can essentially draw on a map now and alert federal agencies to the need for conserving and better managing certain areas."

Bas Aja, a spokesman for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association, characterized the designation differently. He said it might even achieve the opposite of its desired effect.

"In the past, they've set up critical habitat for these fish along the upper Verde River," Aja said. "It kept cattle and ranchers out of the water. As a result, the water became deeper and narrower, which allowed non-native fish to swim up.

"The spikedace population plummeted because of that," Aja said. "Fish and Wildlife doesn't always take these things into account."

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Once an area is designated as a critical habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to be consulted before undertaking any activity that might adversely modify that property. Over 60 percent of the proposed habitat for spikedace and loach minnow is on federally owned land.

The proposal is part of the settlement to a 2005 lawsuit against the federal government by the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties for Stable Economic Growth.

That lawsuit challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's original decision to designate 522 miles of aquatic habitat as critical habitat for the spikedace and loach minnow.

The settlement next calls for the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a scientific and economic analysis of the proposed designation. The agency has until Oct. 15, 2011, to complete these studies.

The proposal is part of an ongoing and multifaceted approach to conservation in the Southwest, where local wildlife – especially aquatic species – is increasingly threatened by invasive species.

One measure biologists may consider to protect native species is the physical removal of non-native species from creeks and streams, although that is a potentially costly and time-consuming process.

Another method is the erection of fish barriers, such as the one currently under construction in the Tonto National Forest outside Phoenix, to prevent non-native species from traveling upstream and further infiltrating the local ecosystem.

The presence of non-native species, such as mosquitofish and crawfish, was first noticed by conservation biologists in the early 1990s. It's not known how they arrived in the Southwest, but their harmful effects on the native wildlife are well established.

Invasive species threaten the local ecosystem through competition and even predation toward native fish, such as the spikedace and loach minnow.

"It's surprising how little attention this issue gets," said Noah Greenberg, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity.

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"Really, almost all aquatic fauna in the Southwest are at risk of extinction, and we need to turn our focus toward doing what we can to protect them," he said.

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Glen Knowles/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The tiny spikedace is native to central and eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the spikedace and loach minnow as endangered and designated nearly 800 miles of streams and rivers as critical habitat to protect it.

Fish facts

  • The proposed critical habitat would extend to portions of the Verde, Salt, San Pedro, Gila, San Francisco and Blue rivers and their tributaries.
  • Both the spikedace and loach minnow are less than 3 inches long and require perennial streams, where they tend to inhabit shallow water with swift currents.
  • Other critical habitat areas for the spikedace and loach minnow were previously designated in 1994, 2000 and 2007.