National Wildlife Refuge System
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the beautiful shiner, a fish native to arid southeastern Arizona
Maintaining habitat for the beautiful shiner, a fish native to arid southeastern Arizona, is a primary goal of the San Bernadino and Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuges.
Credit: William R. Radke, USFWS

Fishy Attraction

Who would look for fish in a desert? Well, the National Wildlife Refuge System does. It may seem strange, but two arid southeastern Arizona refuges owe their establishment to native fish. The San Bernardino and Leslie Canyon National Wildlife refuges, which together hug 5,100 acres along the U.S.–Mexico border in Arizona, share a primary goal: ensuring "the sustainability and recovery of native fish in the Rio Yaqui Basin."

That's a tall order in a hot, sandy region where water is scarce and rights to it are hotly contested.

The fish in question are six species: the Yaqui chub, Yaqui catfish, Yaqui topminnow, Mexican longfin dace, Mexican stoneroller and — the star of the lot, or at least the most coquettishly named — the beautiful shiner. The shiner, which grows to just four inches, is iridescent olive in color until breeding season (late February to summer), when males earn their name by turning orangeish-blue with bright orange fins. Some 30 years after the species died out in the United States, Service biologists propagated the federally threatened fish and reintroduced them to the refuge in 1990.

"Even for people who don't like fish that much, the shiner is a beautiful fish," said San Bernardino/Leslie Canyon refuge manager Bill Radke. "It's a charismatic fish that grabs people's attention." The best place to see the species on the refuge is in the open water areas of Twin Pond, especially near the water outlet structure.

The secret to improving habitat and stabilizing native fish population is encouraging water conservation and wetland development by private landowners. So far, conservation easements protect 25,000 private acres, and some adjacent ranchers have signed legal waivers to raise native fish in private ponds.

"[Having multiple fish beds] is key, so that we don't have all of our eggs in one basket," said Radke.

Roughly one-fourth of Arizona's native fish species are found on the two refuges. Tell that to San Bernadino's 6,000 annual visitors. Most come to see birds, not fish. Two more regional native fish, the Mexican round-tailed chub and Yaqui sucker, are found just across the border in Sonora, Mexico.

For more information: or 520-364-2104.

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