‘Running out of time’: Nonprofit sues to protect 2 threatened Great Basin fish species in Utah

ST. GEORGE —  The Center for Biological Diversity says there is no time to waste when it comes to protecting two imperiled fish in Utah and Nevada. The nonprofit is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force a decision on the species’ listing.

The least chub, as seen in this file photo, is a small minnow species native to Utah with just a handful of wild populations remaining, location unspecified, Oct. 11, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management via flickr, St. George News / Cedar City News

The gold-colored least chub is less than 2.5 inches long and adapted to the “extreme spring habitats” found in Utah’s Bonneville Basin. However, habitat loss and alteration, competition and predation have reduced the fish’s population, bringing it to the “brink of extinction,” St. George News previously reported.

The imperiled fish is the only species in the genus Iotichthys and is currently under threat from the proposed Pine Valley Water Supply Project, which will pump billions of gallons of water from western Utah to Iron County, according to a recent news release issued by the nonprofit.

While the minnow was identified in several regional springs in northern Snake Valley, those areas fall “outside of the predicted area of project effects,” about 70 miles north of the well field, Paul Monroe, the general manager at the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, told St. George News in November.

This statement is disputed by scientists at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources included the least chub on its May 2022 list of “Utah’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” where it is ranked as imperiled sub-nationally and critically imperiled nationally by NatureServe.

In this file photo water spills from the test pump in the Pine Valley area in West Desert, Utah, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, St. George News / Cedar City News

The nonprofit also is suing for the service to make a decision on whether to list Nevada’s Fish Lake Valley tui chub. This olive-colored fish is less than 5 inches long and native to a single spring system in Fish Lake Valley, according to the release.

“The springs that the fish relies on are threatened by groundwater over-pumping,” the release states. “Most of the groundwater pumped in Fish Lake Valley is used in the production of alfalfa. Other threats include lithium and geothermal energy development.”

Both fish species are “an incredibly important part of the Great Basin’s natural heritage, and they’re teetering on the brink of extinction,” Krista Kemppinen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the center, said in the release.

“The longer the service waits to protect these fishes, the greater the chance that they’ll disappear forever,” she said. “We’re in the midst of an extinction crisis and these little minnows are running out of time.”

The nonprofit sought protection for both species in 2021, but the service has not made a decision, failing to make a determination within 12 months of receiving the petition, as required, Kemppinen told St. George News.

Filed in federal court in Tucson, Arizona, the lawsuit says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in violation of the Endangered Species Act due to delays in protecting the two fish and 10 other plant and animal species located across the U.S., the release states.

A person holds a Fish Lake Valley tui chub, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy Nevada Department of Wildlife, St. George News

These species represent a wide range of situations, Kemppinen said, adding that center members split up to raise awareness about these cases, with her speaking on the least chub and tui chub.

The entire process of listing a plant or animal under the Endangered Species Act should take about two years but, on average, it has taken 12, Kemppinen said. The reasons behind delays vary but could include bureaucracy, politically-driven decision making and inadequate funding.

St. George News contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but Jackie D’Almeida, a public affairs specialist with the agency, said they could not comment due to litigation.

“It’s estimated that almost 50 unlisted species that are not currently protected under the Endangered Species Act have actually gone extinct waiting for protection,” Kemppinen said. “So, this is not an uncommon situation.”

Still, she said the law is “one of the strongest laws in any country” for preventing extinction and has prevented nearly 300 species from going extinct since 1973, “saving” approximately 99% of listed species.

“But the act can only be successful at saving the species if the species are protected in the first place,” she said.

It was estimated that approximately 34% of the country’s plants and 40% of animals are at risk of going extinct. Additionally, freshwater creatures are “most at risk of disappearing,” Kemppinen said.  There are 44 protected species in Utah, not including those that still “might deserve protection” but have not received it.

Least chub being stocked into a refuge pond in the West Desert, Utah, October 2016 | Photo courtesy of Chris Crockett and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

“We are really facing an extinction crisis,” she said. “And we really can’t afford to lose any more species.”

Major drivers of extinction include the degradation of natural habitats, damning and polluting rivers, groundwater pumping and invasive species that prey on or outcompete native species, Kemppinen said.

The effects of climate change, such as rising global temperatures and drought conditions, are “significant concerns” in Utah, Kemppinen said, adding that the state is likely to see more “prolonged dry spells” — a “huge stressor for the least chub.”

Continental regions, like Utah, have typically warmed more than the global average since approximately 1900, Kemppinen said. And the state’s average annual temperature has increased by over 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

“And so that’s really concerning,” she said.

To read the lawsuit, click here.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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