N.M. (AP) A fish once found throughout the Zuni River watershed
has been reduced to three small populations in a couple of remote
canyons that slice through western New Mexico, so biologists and
conservationists have teamed up to keep the fish from disappearing.
Zuni bluehead sucker, a colorful fish less than 8 inches long, is
considered endangered by state wildlife officials and is a candidate
for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
sucker's population has decreased by about 90 percent in the past
two decades. It now numbers around 2,000.
a really scary number. It just gives you absolutely no margin for
error," said Terry Sullivan, state director of The Nature Conservancy.
"That's why this is such a high priority for us and the state
and the Zuni Pueblo."
we can act rapidly and unless we can actually take specific tangible
actions on the ground then we will lose the species," he said.
habitat threatened by land mismanagement and development
with many Western species, the sucker's downfall was spurred by
decades of land mismanagement, including clearcutting of timber,
fish eradication efforts and overgrazing. Biologists who have been
monitoring the fish say the lasting impacts from those activities
are being exacerbated by a new threat: development.
have been pouring into the area in recent years, looking for their
own piece of the West in the form of small ranchettes not far from
the sucker's last stronghold.
a beautiful area," said Stephanie Carman, a biologist with
the New Mexico Game and Fish Department. "I can understand
why people want to live there, but there are some serious impacts."
the top of the list is water withdrawal. As more people move in,
more wells are drilled and less water is left for the sucker
which depends on shady, cobble-lined pools.
Pueblo part of an alliance to save the sucker
concern is that development often results in more sediment making
its way to the river system, where it can choke out the sucker and
smother newly spawned eggs.
an effort to save the three remaining populations, the Game and
Fish Department has teamed up with Zuni Pueblo, The Nature Conservancy
and federal agencies to push back development, rid the watershed
of nonnative fish species and learn more about the fish to ensure
have been making regular trips to the remote watershed to monitor
year, they collected larvae and fish putting them in plastic
bags and carefully hauling them over bumpy roads - for safe keeping
in a holding facility at the Albuquerque biopark in case a forest
fire or some other catastrophic event wipes out last of the wild
tests also are being done on the three separate populations. Some
suckers have developed deformities that could cause problems feeding,
or the fish could become more susceptible to disease.
we're working on all of these different levels, not just on the
genetics, not just on the land, I think is the important part,"
Carman said. "Threats are coming at us from every which angle."
is intended to save fish from becoming endangered species
goal of the collaboration is to stabilize and expand the sucker
population so that listing under the Endangered Species Act won't
be necessary. The partners say working outside of the act's restrictions
has enabled them to recruit private landowners who are often suspicious
of the mandates that come along with a species protected by the
that this is the last stronghold of the Zuni bluehead sucker, I
think it's quite imperative that we do have cooperation from all
parties involved, including the private sector," said Nelson
Luna, a biologist and director of the pueblo's Fish and Wildlife
of the fish's remaining population falls within the Rio Nutria Preserve.
The Nature Conservancy and Game and Fish Department recently acquired
another 440 acres to add to the protected area.
Nelson said if development and water withdrawals continue outside
the preserve, seeking federal protections for the fish could become
the last resort, the last card that we want to play," he said,
explaining that an ESA listing would compromise Zuni Pueblo's sovereign
rights to manage its own natural resources.
said the partners are making progress even without the ESA.
fish has its place in the ecosystem
now, our efforts seem as adequate as we can get," she said.
"We can't make it rain, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
can't make it rain either."
biologists acknowledge most people have never heard of the Zuni
bluehead sucker, making it difficult to garner support. But like
the cuddly animals used as poster species for the ESA, the suckers
play an important role in their ecosystem, they said.
think there are a few reasons we as a society, we as a community
and we as a state should be interested in preserving a fish species
like this," Sullivan said.