Are minnow scientists still under the gun?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Sound science goes sour."

The silvery minnow, a two-inch-long fish that’s caused a big splash in the Rio Grande in recent years, used to swim the entire length of the 1,850-mile-long river. Now, its habitat is limited to a 157-mile stretch of river in New Mexico.

Two years ago, in an attempt to protect the endangered fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a “biological opinion” that required the Bureau of Reclamation to keep water in the river, even if that meant cutting irrigation water to farmers.

But last spring, the Bureau allowed a seven-mile stretch of the river to dry up. Then, in September 2002, Fish and Wildlife Service rescinded its biological opinion. In March 2003, Fish and Wildlife released another biological opinion that requires the Bureau to keep the minnow’s critical habitat wet — but only until the end of irrigation season in mid-August. After that, the minnow is on its own.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service changed the flow recommendations once the Bureau said it couldn’t meet them,” says Kara Gillon, wildlife counsel for the Defenders of Wildlife. “The recommendations were clearly based on water for farmers, not on endangered species.”

Local conservationists also say biologists have had to bow to political pressure. “In the fisheries resources office, the front-line officers are under fire,” says John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians. “Those biologists who have integrity are either being marginalized and pushed aside, or being asked, literally, to eliminate documents from the record and to change (their) professional opinions.”

The New Mexico state supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service defends the agency’s policies on the minnow, and the scientists who create them. “Our biologists are the cream of the crop,” says Joy Nicholopoulos. “They’re the ones on the river every day, and their advice is integral to every decision we make.”