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Know the West

Warm-water native fish are left out in the cold

  Little is being done to pull the Southwest’s native fish back from the brink of extinction, according to an independent team of biologists. The study of a dozen warm-water fish in Arizona’s Gila River Basin found that half the species no longer exist in wild populations, while five species occupy less than one-fifth of their historic range.

The government has recovery plans for the fish, which are already listed as threatened or endangered. But scientists say those plans aren’t being followed or aren’t working: No attempts to transplant the spikedace have succeeded. Only 24 of 175 attempts to reintroduce the Gila topminnow have worked, with the fish now limited to 5 percent of its historic range. The authors of the report — fish experts from federal agencies, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and The Nature Conservancy — say they joined together "to fill the void" created when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disbanded its Desert Fishes Recovery Team in 2002.

"The deteriorating status of these populations can be reversed, but scientists are saying none of the steps promised are being taken," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which publicized the study.

Recovery plans often aren’t fully implemented and the government isn’t legally required to carry them out, says Jeff Humphrey of the Fish and Wildlife Service. He noted the study didn’t include the Apache trout, a cold-water species that may become the first fish removed from the endangered species list.

"The current threats to a lot of these fish have been here for 200 years," Humphrey says. "To expect us to turn that around in a period of even a decade is pie in the sky."

Read the report on PEER’s Web site: