SALT LAKE CITY — State wildlife officials are celebrating a big success story in conservation efforts of a tiny fish found only in Utah and dating back to ancient Lake Bonneville times.
The relatively rare nod of approval by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued Monday removes the least chub from the candidate list under an endangered species listing, meaning efforts to address threats to the least chub have proven successful.
"I see this as a good decision," said Cassie Mellon, the native aquatic species program coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "This decision comes from multiple agencies working together with private landowners, people working to voluntarily conserve this species."
The least chub, a 2-inch fish, was known to only exist in three distinct settings in Utah in the 1990s and went on the candidate list in 2010 for protections under the Endangered Species Act.
All of its natural habitat is in Snake Valley in Utah's western desert, where a Nevada groundwater pumping project posed imminent threats to the species but has since been indefinitely delayed.
Over the past two decades, the state has worked with the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners to introduce least chub to 22 additional sites. Today, 28 ponds and wetlands have least chub in them.
“The help private landowners gave us was crucial to increasing the number of least chub in Utah,” Mellon said. “Without their help, we would not have been able to establish the number of least chub populations we’ve established.”
The federal wildlife agency reached its decision to remove the fish from its candidate list via an amendment to a conservation agreement that was signed by the BLM, the state wildlife agency, the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
"Given the partners' long-term history of commitment to conserving this species, we are confident that continued conservation of this unique fish in Utah will be secure into the future," said Noreen Walsh, regional director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region.
But environmental groups called the decision by the federal agency a step backward and insisted protections are still needed.
"We’re glad some of the threats to the least chub have been reduced, but given its limited range and other ongoing threats, this unique little fish clearly still warrants endangered status,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Mellon said in those carefully selected locations that lack predator fish, the 10 "refuge" populations are thriving and serve as a "backup" to those that exist in the wild.
"I think it is just a cool little fish," she added. "It is so small and has these bright red and orange colors when it is spawning. And it exists in this little spring oasis that is surrounded by desert, an amazing ecosystem for a fish that has been around thousands of years. "