The Verde trout, once common in Rim Country streams, is endangered after all, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has concluded.
But even though biologists agree the native fish is clinging to survival in its last few streams, they have also concluded they don’t have enough money to actually add the ancient survivor to the endangered species list.
So the boney, hard-fighting, weird-looking foot-long version of a rainbow trout will now join a logjam of other dwindling species in a strange legal limbo.
The Verde trout, also known as the Roundtail or Boneytail chub, once gleamed and wriggled in streams and river channels throughout the Lower Colorado River Basin. Now, however, the fish clings to survival in just 18 to 30 percent of its former range — about 500 miles of streamfront compared to its once huge, 2,800-mile-long realm.
In the whole Lower Colorado River basin, only the small population in Fossil Creek is considered stable — with the rest continuing to decline.
Such trends have affected almost all of Arizona’s 31 native fish, with 19 species now considered endangered thanks to a century of cattle grazing, dams, water diversions and competition with introduced fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has refused for decades to list the scattered populations of Verde trout in the Lower Colorado River Basin as a separate, endangered species — since they’re similar to fish living in the states of the Upper Basin.
But the most recent ruling concludes that the fish trapped below the big dams on the Colorado River are genetically distinct and constitute separate, significant and definitely endangered populations from the fish in the Upper Basin.
Therefore, the Verde trout qualifies for addition to the Endangered Species list, U.S. Fish and Wildlife concluded this month in the culmination of a process it started in 1985 and pursued fitfully as a result of a succession of lawsuits.
The finding could push government agencies to do more to protect the fish, but the category of “warranted but precluded” lacks legal teeth when it comes to protecting the fish and its habitat.
Congress has capped the budget for listing endangered species at $8.8 million annually, far less than Fish and Wildlife needs to actually list the 120 unlisted species now in the “warranted but precluded” category. The existing budget provides enough money to work on listing only 40 other, higher priority species right on blink of extinction — or those covered by a specific court order. The high priority species are down to fewer than 50 individuals or fewer than four separate populations.
The Verde trout in the Lower Basin is considered in “moderate” danger of extinction, since small populations persist in segments of the Salt, Gila, Little Colorado and Verde rivers.
On the Little Colorado, the fish occur in East Clear Creek and Chevelon Creek. On the Verde River they occur on five tributaries — Fossil, Oak, Roundtree Canyon, West Clear and Wet Beaver creeks. On the Salt, they occur on the Black River plus Ash, Cherry and Salome creeks. They also occur on minor tributaries of the Bill Williams and San Pedro rivers. All those populations are in steep decline, with some perhaps already exterminated, the report concluded.
“The Roundtail is reeling from the one-two punches of habitat loss and the introduction of non-native predators (like bass, trout and catfish),” concluded Steve Spangle, Arizona field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “At this point in time, the Roundtail warrants federal protection.”
However, the legal limbo for the endangered fish means most efforts to protect the Verde trout will remain voluntary. The fish hits on flies and lures and fights hard, but has more bones than trout or bass — including some free-floating bones not attached to the spine that make them harder to clean and less desirable for anglers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increasingly relied on these “safe harbor” agreements with private landowners to protect endangered species and their critical habitat, without imposing strict legal limits.
The legal process that resulted in this month’s muffled victory for the chub started in 1985, when it was first proposed for listing. However, Congress cut the budget so Fish and Wildlife simply abandoned the proposed list. The Center for Biological Diversity sued in 2003 to force the listing, but the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the Upper and Lower Basin populations were a single population — and precluded by the need to list higher priority species.
The Center for Biological Diversity appealed that ruling in the courts in 2006 and the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to undertake the new review, which concluded the Lower Basin fish constitute a distinct population.
The ruling could give Rim Country yet another nationally significant endangered fish. Recently, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish killed all the non-native fish in a stretch of Fossil Creek to reintroduce Verde trout and other native species. This spring-fed stream now harbors the single most stable and best protected population of Verde trout in the world.
Moreover, the Blue Ridge Reservoir could become a refuge for the endangered native fish.
Payson officials have been working with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to significantly improve the habitat and fishing in the East Verde River, which will receive more stable flows as the Salt River Project uses it to convey water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir to the Verde River. The Fish and Wildlife Service has in preliminary discussions with Payson, offered to support the upgrade of the East Verde in return for using the Blue Ridge Reservoir itself as a refuge for Verde trout, say Payson officials.
Other efforts and partnerships could protect or re-establish the Verde trout in other portions of the Salt, Verde and Gila river drainages.
Like many other native species, the Verde trout had adapted over millions of years to the demanding conditions of the state’s pristine rivers. That meant the fish had to adapt to floods, droughts and storms that often turned streams and rivers opaque with silt. The Verde trout, for instance, does well in water temperatures ranging from 32 to 90 degrees — and can even survive water temperatures of about 98 degrees. The fish live for 5 to 7 years, but don’t spawn until they’re about 2.
These demanding conditions created a relatively short list of native species — with predators like the Verde trout facing little competition from other native predators.
That all changed when European settlers arrived and dramatically altered about 95 percent of the state’s riparian areas. Soon, natives like the Verde trout found themselves cut off from headwaters where they spawned by dams and deep, cold lakes. Moreover, they faced fierce competition from introduced sport fish — like bass, trout, catfish, sunfish and others.
Historically, the native fish have suffered severely from the impact of livestock grazing, concluded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report published on July 7 in the federal register. Cattle allowed to loiter in streambeds have damaged an estimated 80 percent of the riparian habitats in the western U.S. One estimate suggested that 81 percent of the vegetation consumed or trampled by cattle was in riparian areas, which constitute just 2 percent of the total range.
Unregulated cattle grazing dramatically reduces streamside vegetation, increases water temperature, reduces pools and overhanging banks, changes water chemistry and eliminates pools and backwaters critical to the Verde trout’s larva and young.
However, sheer human population growth seems poised to become the most important factor affecting Arizona streams, the report concluded.
For instance, the population of Gila County increased 200 percent since 2000 and the human population in the Verde River watershed is projected to double in the next 50 years.