olorado River showdown readied
By GARY GHIOTO
Sun Staff Reporter
In just 40 years, Glen Canyon Dam's chilly releases and a state trout
fishery have brought the 2 million-year run of the humpback chub in the
Colorado River nearly to an end, say environmentalists.
Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the chub as endangered,
the agency's new recovery plan for the chub violates federal law and "leaves
the fish in greater peril," charged the Grand Canyon Trust Monday.
The Trust, represented by Earthjustice, a legal foundation, said it will sue
Interior Secretary Gail Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for
violating the Endangered Species Act regarding its chub plan.
Environmentalists claim the federal government caved to "powerful special
interests" when it crafted a humpback recovery plan that overlooks a
dramatic decline in fish numbers. The plan also ignores Glen Canyon Dam's
damaging impact on river temperatures and sediment flows, said Earthjustice
and the Trust.
"The Grand Canyon is in trouble," said Geoff Barnard, president of Grand
Canyon Trust. "Today we are launching a major effort to save Grand Canyon by
restoring the health of the Colorado River."
The lawsuit over the chub is likely to be the first of many from the
Flagstaff-based group, which rarely engages in legal disputes, regarding the
environmental health of Grand Canyon, said Barnard.
The chub -- along with already extinct native fish species such as the
bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker -- once thrived in the
warm, muddy river. The strange-looking fish with a small head and snout has
a streamlined olive-gray body streaked with silver sides. Its hump allows it
to traverse strong rapids. It can grow up to 18 inches and can weigh more
than 2 pounds.
Glen Canyon Dam has sucked sediment from the river and its clear, cold
releases sent water temperatures plummeting. The fish are indicators of the
precarious health of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, say
"The fish in the river are really a bellwether for the whole system. There
were eight native fish, four are gone. A fifth, the humpback chub, is down
to just 1,100 individuals. It's time for the government to
step up and meet its obligations to protect the Grand Canyon and that's what
it's all about," added Barnard.
The lawsuit was prompted after the Fish and Wildlife Service released a
recovery plan in August that said the species could be classified as fully
recovered and taken off the endangered list when the population reached
Environmentalists noted that the federal government listed the chub as
endangered in 1992 when 5,000 adults were found in the Colorado River.
Scientists estimate that from 1982 to 2001, the number of chub diminished by
The latest inventory of the chub found only 1,100 adults in the river.
The recovery plan violates the Endangered Species Act by ignoring "sound
science" conducted by the federal government that shows that there are fewer
chubs in the river now than there was 10 years ago when the species was
first listed, said Nikolai Ramsey, a Trust program officer.
The government's recovery goal of 2,100 adults is hardly acceptable based on
the 1992 listing data. A healthy, sustaining population of 30,000
individuals, should be the government's goal, said Ramsey.
The 1,100 fish now living in the river are at the brink of existence and the
needed numbers for genetic diversity, he said.
"That number is unacceptably low," agreed Jay Tutchton, an attorney for
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's new 'recovery' goal is a feel-good fairy
tale based not on sound science, but political expediency and the desires of
powerful special interests," added Tutchton.
Special interests cited by Tutchton include the expanding number of states,
government agencies and others seeking more and more water from the Colorado
River and the continued existence of Glen Canyon Dam.
The creation of a sport fishery at Lees Ferry, which now numbers more than 1
million trout, has also contributed to the chub's decline through predation,
Officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service Colorado River Recovery program
in Denver did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
Some of the solutions posed by the Trust and other environmental groups to
restore native fish in the Colorado River include more water discharges from
Glen Canyon Dam to raise water temperatures and increase sediment along the
banks of the river. The chub need 70-degree water temperatures to thrive and
spawn. Currently river temperatures average 47 degrees.
A study of the trout fishery and its impact on the chub is also being urged
"Science has show in recent years the steady decline of the resources of the
Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. These are cumulative effects of
Glen Canyon Dam. What was once a warm, muddy river is now a cold, clear
river. The erosion of the beaches, the vegetation changes due to the lack of
flooding, all these things are indicative of a river that has changed and is
in declining ecological health," said Barnard.