A tiny, colorful fish that lives in the desert springs and marshes of western Utah is on the rebound - without ever having been listed as threatened or endangered.


The algae-feeding least chub once lived throughout Utah's West Desert, but by the early 1990s, the fish were found only in four ponds along the Utah-Nevada border.


The federal Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed an Endangered Species Act listing in 1995, just as Congress placed a moratorium on new listings. So instead, the agency joined forces with other federal and state agencies and wrote a conservation agreement for the species. Though a conservation agreement can't require new protections for a species, it recommended that local ranchers rotate their pastures and fence cattle out of springs. It also said that the agencies should reintroduce the fish to nearby Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and conduct an intensive search for other populations.


The result? Fish Springs' 230 original transplants now number 3,000, says refuge manager Jay Banta, and biologists have found two new populations in western Utah. Fencing has also helped to protect the fragile springs from cattle.


Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Muck has concerns about conservation agreements, since they lack legal teeth, but in this case, he says, the plan has worked. "The least chub is definitely in better shape than it was prior to the plan. We reversed some of the troubling trends that were going on."


There's still a lot of local opposition to the plan. But Ed Alder, whose 100 head of cattle will be fenced away from the springs, says the agreement benefits the local ranching community.


"I discussed with state biologists what the chub needs, we sat down and talked about my needs as a rancher, and we figured ways to accommodate both needs," Alder said. "I think it is a win-win situation."


*Jeff Schmerker