| FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 19, 2006
Feds Must Reconsider Habitat Protection for Devils River Minnow
Under a recent lawsuit settlement agreement, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must issue a determination by July 31, 2007 on whether it will protect critical habitat for the Devils River minnow (Dionda diaboli) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The minnow is a highly imperiled freshwater fish that was listed in 1999 as threatened under the ESA, surviving only in the middle Devils River, Pinto Creek and San Felipe Creek (tributaries to the Rio Grande), and possibly the Río Salado in northern Mexico. Last October, Forest Guardians, the Center for Biological Diversity and Save Our Springs Alliance filed a federal lawsuit to challenge FWS’s refusal to designate critical habitat to protect the minnow. The settlement comes at a crucial time for the minnow, as extensive drying this summer in Pinto Creek has left many areas with little more than standing water, endangering one of the last remaining populations of minnows.
Robert Corbin, owner of more than 1,300 acres of river front land on the Devils River and a member of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said, “As a riverfront landowner committed to protecting our spring and river flows, I see new hope for the river, where critical habitat designation can both help recover the minnow and help assure that sufficient flows and water quality are maintained.”
The Devils River minnow, a small freshwater fish with a wedge-shaped spot on its tail and a distinct lateral stripe, inhabits small spring-fed streams with fast flowing water. It was once one of the most abundant of native fishes in southern Texas, but the minnow is now one of the region’s least abundant fish species.
“This settlement gives the Devils River minnow a fighting chance. What this fish needs most desperately is strong habitat protections,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of Forest Guardians. “Protecting habitat for the minnow will also help safeguard the endangered Rio Grande ecosystem it inhabits.”
Surveys show a massive reduction in the population and range of the Devils River minnow due to habitat loss from dam construction, spring dewatering and other stream modifications. Introductions of non-native fish such as smallmouth bass and armored catfish have contributed to the collapse of the minnow population in Devils River through direct predation, competition for food and destruction of its suitable habitat. Imminent threats to the minnow include reduced stream flows and other impacts to water quality caused by irrigation, bank stabilization and flood control projects. These adverse stream modifications, in concert with drought, have severely degraded native fish habitat.
“Protection of critical habitat is needed to recover the Devils River minnow and preserve the natural heritage of the Rio Grande watershed,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Studies of all currently listed endangered species show that those with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to have improving population trends.”
The lawsuit alleged that the FWS violated the ESA by refusing to designate critical habitat for the minnow, falsely asserting it would not be beneficial to the species. The FWS ignored the fact that critical habitat designations provides additional protections beyond listing the species under the ESA and is an important tool for recovering the fish.
“For centuries, San Felipe Springs, Las Moras Springs and other waters in this region have sustained human settlement as well as fish and other wildlife,” said Bill Bunch, Executive Director for the Save Our Springs Alliance. “While FWS analyzes critical habitat and instream flow needs, the state should refrain from issuing new surface water diversion permits. Similarly, local groundwater districts should not permit additional pumping that threatens spring flows.”
Forest Guardians (www.fguardians.org) works to preserve and restore native wildlands and wildlife in the American Southwest.
The Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org) is a science-based environmental advocacy organization with more than 25,000 members that works to protect endangered species and wild places throughout the world through science, policy, education, citizen activism and environmental law.
Save Our Springs Alliance (www.sosalliance.org) is a non-profit organization that seeks to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and its unique endemic fauna. SOSA is a member of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (www.aquiferalliance.org), a coalition of local conservation organizations spanning the entire Edwards Aquifer region. The conservation groups are represented by attorneys and students at the University of Denver College of Law’s Environmental Law Clinical Partnership.
The Devils River minnow has been completely eliminated from several areas in southern Texas – including the lower portions of the Devils River due to the construction of Amistad Reservoir, the Upper Devils River due to lack of stream flows and Las Moras Creek due to damming in the area – and may have also been extirpated from the Río San Carlos in Mexico.
Critical habitat designations provide protection of areas not currently occupied by the species and protects critical habitat from adverse modification. A peer-reviewed study in the April 2005 issue of BioScience, “The Effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: A Quantitative Analysis,” concludes that species with critical habitat designated for two or more years are more than twice as likely to have improving population trends than species without it.
The FWS approved a final recovery plan for the Devils River minnow in September 2005, which relies exclusively on voluntary conservation measures. The groups believe the plan is insufficient not only to recover, but also to prevent the minnow’s extinction.
The Devils River minnow is part of a unique fish fauna in the area where the Chihuahuan Desert, Edwards Plateau and South Texas Brush eco-regions join. Fishes in this area have been heavily impacted by human water use and introduced species, and half of the native fishes of the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas and Mexico are considered imperiled, with four species already having gone extinct. In 2003, the Rio Grande was rated by American Rivers as one of the most endangered rivers in the U.S.