Virgin River backbone caught in endangered species lawsuit – St George News


File photo: Park biologists study Virgin River medulla in Zion National Park, Washington County, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

ST. GEORGEAfter more than a quarter of a century of conservation efforts, the future of a small species of Virgin River fish remains uncertain following a November 17 advisory filed against the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Virgin River jellyfish are native fish found only in the titular river and its tributaries, location unspecified, March 3, 2008 | Photo courtesy of Rick Fridell / Utah Division of Wildlife, St. George News

The Virgin River Jellyfish is a species of minnow found only in the Virgin River and its tributaries. Often compared to trout in terms of color, shape, and behavior, the four inch fish differ mainly in their small size and distribution.

The Center for Biological Diversity has announced plans to sue the wildlife agency for denying protection to four species – including the medulla – and delaying protection for six others.

“Our best tool in dealing with the extinction crisis in the United States is the Endangered Species Act, but unfortunately the Fisheries and Wildlife Service has become very slow in implementing it. “said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species at the center. “They don’t move fast enough to protect the species that need them, and they often refuse species that are clearly at risk like the medulla.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on any pending litigation. However, in a press release issued in September, the agency announced that the protection of endangered species was not warranted for 17 species previously examined. The increase in distribution and population density in the case of the medulla justified the decision not to list the species, by the exit.

Greenwald said the agency’s decision ignored the best information available and ignored long-term threats to the spinal cord.

The Virgin River which crosses the high mountain desert, place and date not specified | Photo courtesy of the US Bureau of Reclamation, St. George News

“One of the main issues we see with the decision was that when looking at the impacts of climate change, they were only thinking 20 years into the future,” he said. “There are going to be more severe droughts, there is going to be a loss of flow and at the same time St. George is growing, so there is going to be more demand for water. “

Continued growth coupled with a lack of large-scale conservation efforts will result in lower flow and higher temperatures in the Virgin River and its tributaries. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that the continued availability of water is a serious challenge facing the spinal cord, but the agency has reiterated its commitment to existing partnerships rather than continuing federal intervention.

Virgin Spinedace Conservation Agreement and Strategy

The recovery of the Spinedace has been a goal shared by federal agencies, the Utah Wildlife Division, and other local organizations since 1995. After initially seeking protection under the Endangered Species Act , the collaborating organizations signed on to the Virgin Spinedace Accord and Conservation Strategy instead.

File Photo: Scientists examine the backbone of the Virgin River in Zion National Park, Washington County, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Zion Forever Project, St. George News

Martin Schijf, a native aquatic biologist in the Utah Wildlife Division, has worked with spruce trees and other species in the Virgin River for 15 years. He said the conservation plan has been successful thanks in large part to partnerships with local organizations like the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

“When the conservation agreement was established, the distribution of the jellyfish throughout the basin had declined to around 60% of its historical range,” said Schijf. “As a result of the agreement and the partnerships developed under it, spruce trees now occupy more than 90% of their historic habitat. This is a direct result of the conservation efforts implemented under the conservation agreement.

While state and federal efforts to restore the medulla to their original range have been largely successful so far, there are still areas of concern.

Native aquatic biologist Christian Edwards, also from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said spruce trees were remarkably hardy and well adapted to their native desert environment – but there was little they could do about it. to certain man-made challenges.

“One of the biggest declines we’ve seen over the years is Ash Creek and the Santa Clara River,” said Edwards. “These are areas where the diverted water results in a low flow, but they are also home to a particularly high number of beavers. Beavers are generally good for an ecosystem, but beaver dams form large, massive pools that provide refuge for non-native fish like bullhead and green crappie that outperform jellyfish.

To protect the medulla, Edwards and Schijf said implementing water conservation measures would be vital to ensure the medulla does not lose what little habitat it currently occupies.

In this 2017 file photo, a sign at Brooks Pond in St. George advises visitors not to throw their pet fish in the water, St. George, Utah | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Additionally, the average Southern Utah resident can help the spinal cord by ensuring non-native fish are not introduced by throwing out pet fish or releasing sport fish into local ponds and streams.

However, the Center for Biological Diversity remains skeptical that the necessary changes will be made before it is too late.

“The problem is, the state’s wildlife division doesn’t control how the water is used,” Greenwald said. “They don’t have the capacity to make sure there are minimum flows or something like that. The reality is that St. George needs to change its practices – there is only a finite amount of water in the desert, and the Washington County Water Conservancy District cannot continue to pretend it is not. .

Ensuring federal protection of the Virgin River backbone would grant management agencies more regulatory power, preventing local agencies and municipalities from drawing too much water, Greenwald said.

While they may disagree on the details, Greenwald and wildlife managers at least agree on the importance of seeing the spinal cord persist in their natural habitat. Spine forests help balance the ecosystem by eating insects and clearing debris from the river. If their populations were to collapse, the water quality of the Virgin River could decline, which would become very clear to local residents who depend on the river for drinking water.

But for Schijf, their value exceeds their usefulness.

“They have evolved here in this ecosystem, and they are part of the natural heritage of this region,” said Schijf. “They have intrinsic value just because they are who they are. We should be stewards of these species to make sure they persist in these waterways, don’t go extinct, and we provide conservation measures to make sure they thrive.

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