May 7, 2009

Reevaluation Of Critical Habitat For 2 Threatened Fish

A federal judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must now reconsider the critical habitat placement of two fish species threatened by endangerment in New Mexico and Arizona after it was exposed that politics seemed to interfere with the scientists' initial assessment.

Critical habitat is a term used to describe areas of land and water with physical and biological features that are necessary to the conservation of threatened or endangered species, which may require management considerations or protection.

The spikedace and loach minnow have been eliminated from more than 80 percent of their ranges in the two states. The fish were once common in the Verde, Salt, San Pedro and Gila rivers.

Senior U.S. District Judge John Conway decided Tuesday that the agency's original habitat designation for the spikedace and loach minnow would remain unchanged until federal biologists are able to determine if the fish need a larger space. In this ruling he also said that the original designation is likely "not expansive enough".

Conway said that it would still be "least disruptive" to allow the existing designation to remain in effect pending a review.

A coalition of counties in the two states and the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association had sued over the original designation, claiming that the Fish and Wildlife Service exceeded their limitations and failed to abide by the conditions of the Endangered Species Act in setting aside the critical habitat.

They want the fish to be removed from the original designation while the matter is being reviewed by the agency.

The review will take quite a bit of time because they will have to assess the area to see if there is space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior, shelter, food, water, and other nutritional/physiological requirements as well as areas for breeding and rearing offspring.

The report by the Department of Interior inspector general found potential evidence of political interference by former deputy assistant Interior secretary, Julie MacDonald. The report said MacDonald chose one of many potential critical habitat designations for the two fish and said that she wanted to make the area set aside for the species "as small as possible."

The Fish and Wildlife Service planned to analyze the designation and present a draft proposal in October 2010, agency spokeswoman Charna Lefton said Wednesday. It would then be another year before the agency is able to act definitively.

In order for these fish to thrive again and be taken off the threatened list, there must be protection of existing populations and restoration of depleted populations of the spikedace and loach minnow along with their habitats and ensuring their safety. They must also achieve self-sustenance and population growth.


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