Group sues over delayed government action to list fish as endangered

Groundwater pipeline pits city growth against biodiversity conservation.
A photograph of Coal Creek, near Cedar City, Utah.

The least chub is a tiny, minnow-like fish found in spring-fed pools in the Great Basin in eastern Nevada and western Utah. For years, its population has been in decline due to drought and groundwater pumping in the region. But even with repeated efforts from one conservation group to list the fish as endangered, little federal action has been taken to protect it. 

In fall of 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the fish for endangered species status. The agency is required to make a decision within 12 months of the petition’s file date, but as of May 2023, a decision still has not been made whether to protect the least chub. The organization filed a lawsuit against the government in early March to urge them to make a decision. 

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long struggled to protect species in a timely manner,” said Krista Kempinnen, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with the Sierra Nevada Ally. “On average, it’s taken them about 12 years instead of two years [to list a species as endangered.]”

The Endangered Species Act recommends the Fish and Wildlife Service move through the petition to protection stages in two years, but this process usually takes more than a decade longer than what the law prescribes, according to a 2016 study published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation. “Almost 50 species that are not protected under the Endangered Species Act have gone extinct waiting for those protections,” Kempinnen said. A list of species from the candidate list that went extinct before gaining protections as of 1996 can be found here.

A photo of the least chub, a small fish that fits in the palm of your hand.
The least chub can fit in the palm of your hand.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Once on the endangered species list, extinction rates decrease dramatically: the Endangered Species Act prohibits actions that would imperil listed species, and has had an estimated 99% success rate in saving those species, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. But getting species onto this list is a challenge of its own, one that the least chub is no stranger to. 

The 2021 petition was the second one the Center for Biological Diversity submitted for the least chub. The group submitted a petition in 2007 that was also ignored by the Fish and Wildlife Service until the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit urging the government to respond.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service officially recognized the least chub as a species that warranted protection, a move that put it on the endangered species candidate list. But this did not spur any real change for the fish: candidate species receive no endangered species protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service does say the candidate list encourages “actions that will eliminate the need to list these species [as endangered] in the future,” according to their website. For the least chub, conservationists say listing it as endangered is the only way to save it from extinction.

One major threat the least chub faces is the development of a proposed pipeline that would transport groundwater from Beaver County, Utah, 70 miles southeast to Cedar City to support the city’s growing population. Opponents of the project say it threatens to drain the springs the least chub relies on for habitat.

The proposal has also drawn flack from local communities. Ranchers fear the pipeline would draw down the groundwater they use for their cattle. Members of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah say the pipeline infringes on the senior water rights the tribe holds and could affect archaeological sites along the path of the pipeline.

In early May, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management paused the project in the middle of the environmental review, a rare move that could mean the eventual end of the pipeline. “Our scientific and legal analysis of the draft environmental impact statement highlighted the high likelihood of grave impacts damaging special ecosystems, tribal rights, farmers, and rural communities,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, in a press release. “[We] will continue to bring together unlikely allies to put the final nails in this water grab’s coffin.”

Listing the least chub as endangered could serve as one of those final nails, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, but would require the government act now on their decision regarding the fish’s endangered species status.

No timeline is in place as the organization waits for a response on their lawsuit, but Kempinnen said litigation is a useful way to put pressure on the government to move the decision making process along.

“These lawsuits can help make sure that the Fish and Wildlife Service does make a decision in regard to the protection of species in a timely manner,” Kempinnen said.

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