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Zuni Pueblo Helps Rare New Mexico Fish
by Susan Montoya Bryan of the Associated Press
credits: AP Photo/New Mexico Game and Fish Department by Lesley Ikeda

ALBUQUERQUE, 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.

The 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.

The sucker's population has decreased by about 90 percent in the past two decades. It now numbers around 2,000.

"That's 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."

"Unless we can act rapidly and unless we can actually take specific tangible actions on the ground then we will lose the species," he said.

Fish habitat threatened by land mismanagement and development

As 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.

People 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.

"It's 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."

At 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.

Zuni Pueblo part of an alliance to save the sucker

Another 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.

In 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 its future.

Biologists have been making regular trips to the remote watershed to monitor the suckers.

Last 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 population.

Genetic 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.

"That 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."

Effort is intended to save fish from becoming endangered species

The 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 ESA.

"Understanding 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 Department.

Much 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.

However, Nelson said if development and water withdrawals continue outside the preserve, seeking federal protections for the fish could become inevitable.

"That's 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.

Carman said the partners are making progress even without the ESA.

Little-known fish has its place in the ecosystem

"For 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."

The 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.

"I 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.

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