Conservation Groups Sue To Protect Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout

State fish of New Mexico heading for extinction


Neil Levine, Earthjustice, 303-871-6985


Robin Cooley, Earthjustice, 303-871-6994


Noah Greenwald, Center for Biologic Diversity, 406-556-1423

Earthjustice, on behalf conservation groups listed below, filed suit today against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overturn its decision to not list the Rio Grande cutthroat trout as an endangered species. On June 11, 2002, Fish and Wildlife determined that the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, state fish of New Mexico, does not need federal protection, despite the fact that the species has been eliminated from as much as 99 percent of its historic range. The groups allege that Fish and Wildlife failed to consider whether the cutthroat is endangered in a significant portion of its range and ignored information indicating populations of Rio Grande cutthroat trout continue to be threatened by multiple factors.

The Endangered Species Act specifies that a species shall be listed if it is endangered in a significant portion of its range. Although Fish and Wildlife concedes the Rio Grande cutthroat trout has been eliminated from 99 percent of its range, they bizarrely never considered whether the species is endangered in a significant portion of its range. “The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its former range and continues to decline,” concludes Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Such decline clearly indicates the trout merits listing as endangered and that Fish and Wildlife’s finding is plainly illegal.”

Rio Grande cutthroat trout populations are beset by a multitude of threats, including: non-native trout, disease, population restriction, and habitat degradation related to livestock grazing, logging, roads and other factors. Fish and Wildlife’s finding doesn’t deny that most populations continue to be threatened by these factors, but rather based its decision not to list on 13 populations it claimed are secure from these threats. Even these 13 populations, however, cannot be considered secure because they are found in tiny, isolated headwater drainages that are subject to disturbances, such as fire, floods or drought, or to reinvasion by non-native trout. “To rely on such a small number of populations found in marginal habitat in determining the trout isn’t endangered is preposterous,” notes Greenwald.

Denying protection for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout exemplifies Secretary Gayle Norton and the Bush administration’s opposition to protecting species under the Endangered Species Act. To date, the Bush administration has listed only 20 species, all of them following either lawsuits or petitions on the part of citizens. In contrast, the Clinton administration had listed 211 species in the same period of his first administration. “The Bush administration has an abysmal record on protecting species and ecosystems,” states Greenwald, “and thus it’s not surprising that it decided not to list the trout.”

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout was first recognized in 1541 by Pedro de Castañedade Najera, who wrote of “a little stream which abounds in excellent trout and otter” (the otter is extinct in the Southwest). This was in all likelihood Glorieta Creek southeast of present day Santa Fe, now a barren, ephemeral wash for most of its length, harboring only a few exotic brown trout. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout once ranged throughout cool waters of the Rio Grande, including the Chama, Jemez and Rio San Jose drainages, along with the Pecos and Canadian River drainages.

The groups represented in the suit are the Center for Biological Diversity, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Carson Forest Watch, Center for Native Ecosystems, Pacific Rivers Council, and Mr. Michael Norte.

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