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Know the West

A small fish takes a big hit


The Rio Grande silvery minnow is not a glamorous fish, but it does have a claim to fame: It's the last minnow species to survive in New Mexico's beleaguered stretch of the Rio Grande, where every native fish is extinct or threatened with extinction. But in April, an irrigation district diverted so much water from the river at San Acacia Dam it dried out a 45-mile stretch that is home to about 70 percent of the minnows' population. Many of the endangered fish, which live just one year, were ready to spawn when they died.

"It's the most heinous ecological crime I've experienced in 20 years of activism," says Sam Hitt, a Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate. "I believe they deliberately shut the water off to cause the minnow extinction."

Federal officials warned the district that its diversion of water to 400 farms might break the law. But an extremely dry spring and thirsty crops swayed them. "Most of us couldn't care less if that fish is here tomorrow," Dennis Harris, an onion and hay farmer, told the Albuquerque Journal.

In an attempt to save the surviving minnows, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed a fraction of water to remain in a 10-mile stretch of the river rather than diverting it to a wildlife refuge below the dam. Later releases from storage reservoirs also may have given the minnows a fighting chance. In late May, federal biologist Jennifer Fowler-Probst reported "evidence of spawning."

Meanwhile, Hitt, director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, says his group is suing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act.

For more information, contact Forest Guardians, 612 Old Sante Fe Trail, Suite B, Santa Fe, NM 87501 (505/988-9126); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2105 Osuna NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113 (505/761-4525).

* Michelle McClellan HCN intern