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Partnership Recovers Endangered Fish and Allows for Water Development
by Sharon B. Whitmore
Photo Credit: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
The Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker once thrived in the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado River in northwestern New Mexico. Both species have been significantly impacted by impoundments in the Colorado River system and competition by introduced non-native fish species. By the 1980s, only small remnant populations of these two species survived in these warm waters.
The Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus Lucius), known formerly as the Colorado River squawfish, was among the first list of animals to gain federal protection in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act—a precursor to the Endangered Species Act. The razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus) joined the pikeminnow on the list of endangered and threatened species in 1991, and the following year, the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program was formed—its mission two-fold: recover the two endangered fish in the San Juan River, and allow water development to proceed in the Basin in compliance with all applicable laws, compacts, and treaties. This collaborative program is made up of San Juan River Basin partners including state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, water development interests, and various conservation organizations.
For nearly 20 years, this collaborative partnership has worked to recover the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker through propagation and stocking to re-establish self-sustaining populations; remove harmful, non-native species; conduct research and monitoring to assess progress; and manage habitat by providing adequate flows, range, and water quality.
Historically, the Colorado pikeminnow – the largest American minnow – was an important food for residents in the Colorado River Basin. This massive fish, which grows up to six feet long and weighs up to 80 pounds, was considered the best food fish of the river in 1891 and was widely sought after.
Photo Credit: USFWS
There are numerous stories of this large minnow in the historical record; however, the first confirmed occurrence of the pikeminnow in the San Juan River wasn't until 1936, when three juveniles were captured. It was thought to be fairly abundant at that time. Nevertheless, by the late '80s fish surveys found only a handful of wild pikeminnow remaining in the river.
To jumpstart recovery, the program began stocking efforts in 1996. Since this time, there has been a gradual upward trend in total adult pikeminnow captured, although most are presumably from the stocking program. Young, wild-spawned pikeminnow remain rare, but a few larval fish have been caught throughout the 2000s, a sign that some natural reproduction is occurring.
The razorback sucker, a long-lived fish reaching lengths of up to 39 inches and weighing as up to 12 pounds, was also valued as food by Native Americans and early settlers. The species was reported in the San Juan River in the 1890s, but the first scientific documentation of its presence in the river was in 1976. By the early '90s, wild populations had virtually disappeared. Annual stocking of this species began in 1994.
Spawning has been documented in the river for the past 15 consecutive years, and there has been a steady increase in the number of razorback suckers captured over time with a good mix of age classes—a sign of successful reproduction. Additionally, upstream distribution continues to expand, increasing by over 19 river miles since 2000.
According to Tom Pitts, a long-time program participant representing water development interests, the recovery program is moving towards recovery of endangered species – the ultimate goal of the ESA – in concert with continued water development and management.
"One of the Recovery Program's greatest accomplishments has been to bring people together in a collaborative effort that serves many diverse interests," Pitts wrote in a recent article published in Irrigation Leader magazine. "Enormous conflicts with uncertain outcomes have been avoided. Potential adversaries have become allies and partners."
The road to recovery of any species is rarely an easy one. Through this tremendous collaborative effort, we are witnessing the encouraging signs of significant movement towards recovery of two important species.
Sharon B. Whitmore, Assistant Director of the San Juan River Recovery Implementation Program, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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