2/23/2012 4:23:00 PM Endangered fish habitat expanded in Verde River watershed
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has designated almost all of the Verde River and its perennial tributaries as critical habitat for spikedace, a species the agency has also upgraded from a threatened species to an endangered species.
Although no loach minnows have been spotted in the Verde River in recent years, 118 miles of it is being set aside as critical habitat.
CAMP VERDE - Fish biologists refer to spikedace and loach minnows as "small bodies," due to the fact they are...well...so small.
But in the larger scheme of things throughout the Verde River watershed, there is nothing small about the impact of their presence.
As of Thursday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has changed the status of both fish species from threatened to endangered and expanded the range of their critical habitat.
The announcement this week and the publishing of the new designations in the Federal Register, is the culmination of an 18-year battle, fought through three legal challenges and some political meddling.
In its announcement on Wednesday, the USFWS stated that the need for a change in status was due to prolonged drought, the anticipated effects of climate change and, especially, an expanding population and range of predatory non-native fish.
"It's something thing we are seeing in a host of native fish species. They were never well adapted to predators, even smaller competitors," said USFWS spokesperson Jeff Humphreys.
Effective now, 171 miles of the Verde River, plus 34 miles of Oak Creek, 21 miles of Beaver Creek, 7 miles of Clear Creek and 14 miles of Fossil Creek has been designated as critical habitat for the spikedace.
The same reaches, with the exception of 52 miles of the Verde River between Beaver Creek and Fossil Creek, has been designated as critical habitat for the loach minnow.
Spikedace currently inhabit the Verde River and Fossil Creek. Loach minnows, however, exist only in Fossil Creek, where they were transplanted when the creek became a native fish sanctuary. It is believed the entire designated area was once home to both species.
The endangered species listing and critical habitat designation prevents federal and state agencies from undertaking, funding or permitting activities that may affect the habitat deemed necessary for survival, without first consulting the USFWS to ensure those activities will not harm the species or its habitat.
Private land is only affected if there is a nexus with a federal project of federal funding.
Propagating spikedace and loach minnows in captivity is a challenge, according to Jeff Sorensen, native fish and invertebrate program director at the Arizona Game & Fish Department, although they have had some success at the Bubbling Ponds hatchery in Page Springs.
"We have learned a quite a bit over the last four or five years in trying to produce enough for reintroduction. So far, though, we have only been able to produce them in the hundreds, not the thousands," Sorensen says.
There are no plans at this time to reintroduce either species into the Verde watershed except at Fossil Creek, according to Humphreys.
"I would say we have two species whose status has gone from bad to worse with recovery, so we have to remain open to trying new things," he says. "No one is discounting reintroduction at this point; it's just a matter of available fish."-- Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org