Another possible endangered species listing is placing a high demand on the Valley’s resources, and it’s more than caught the attention of the six county governments. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continues to find listing the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (RGCT) warranted but precluded , according to the Federal Register, Fri. Nov. 22, 2013. The agency, however, is working on a proposed listing rule expected to publish prior to making the next annual resubmitted petition 12-month finding.
The ruling, an initial recommendation on whether the Valley’s historical breed of fish, which is also found in New Mexico, is endangered, threatened or not warranted for listing, is scheduled for September, according to agency officials. For the next few months, the FWS will continue to monitor new information about the RGCT in addition to considering public comments.
On Monday, the San Luis Valley County Commissioners Association (CCA) devoted much time to learn about the condition of the RGCT, and moved to set a work session in February to decide how they would support the long time Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) led Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Conservation Team (RGCT CT) efforts to keep the RGCT off any lists.
The RGCT CT’s findings and strategy suggest the potential listing is inappropriate , and an action that could affect the Valley’s economy and public and private land use while costing the six Valley counties thousands of dollars to accommodate on top of costs only starting to add up to fight a threatened or endangered ruling.
For the past 40 years, the Valley has spent dollars state, federal and private to keep the RGCT alive and well for reasons spanning from recreation to genetic diversity protection, fending off a species status change on several occasions.
In 1973, the species was listed as a threatened species in Colorado, and removed in 1984. Fourteen years later, a federal petition was filed under the Endangered Species Act, and it was contested in court in 2002. In 2007, the RGCT was reviewed, and a year later the FWS found the listing was warranted, but precluded.
Between 2003 and 2011, CPW expended $792,000 on RGCT conservation efforts, according to CPW data, including surveying RGCT populations, establishing conservation populations, erecting barriers preventing species contamination, stocking genetically pure RGCT populations and working with other agencies and groups to ensure there are sufficient instream flows to support native fish and their required habitat.
The RGCT CT’s undertakings are ongoing, and the group heads into 2014 monitoring 10 conservation populations and documenting new RGCT populations throughout the area, said CPW Senior Aquatic Biologist John Alves on Monday. Longtime broodstock development also continues at Haypress Lake. Since 2005, CPW has stocked 86,000 to 143,000 RGCT in high lakes and streams for angler recreation or to create new conservation populations.
RGCT CT activities, Alves added, include genetic testing to determine species, purity and level of introgression with other cutthroat species. Populations with more than 90 percent RGCT are considered conservation populations and populations with more than 99 percent RGCT are considered core conservation populations used for developing broodstocks or new populations. Other activities, he said, are focused on habitat improvement using man-made barriers to secure RGCT populations from non-native fish, replacing culverts and mitigating livestock grazing and logging in addition to a myriad of public outreach initiatives.
Other federal and state agency funded conservation plans taking into consideration water, land and their uses that do not directly address RGCT habitat and population, but support the productivity of the Valley’s ecosystem as a whole, are already helping to maintain and preserve the environmental condition of the downstream land if the fish was capable of living in the warmer river waters cutting through the Rio Grande Basin. The RGCT CT and its supporters do not foresee such a scenario unfolding because the species is primarily found in cold streams and lakes.
“The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD ) does not believe listing the RGCT as an endangered species is warranted in light of the current status of the RGCT and ongoing voluntary conservation efforts,” RGWCD General Manger Steve Vandiver stated in a letter to the FWS presented at the CAA meeting. “The RGWCD has supported the ongoing voluntary conservation efforts in the San Luis Valley and in the Rio Grande Headwaters.”
The voluntary efforts are the doing of governments and agencies in Colorado and New Mexico including the CPW, the FWS, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management , the National Park Service, the Jicarilla Apache Nation,the Mescalero Apache Nation and the Taos Pueblo Waterchief. Colorado Trout Unlimited, New Mexico Council of Trout Unlimited and the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Team (RWEACT) also support the efforts the CCA is considering signing onto next month in addition to looking at other possible county actions regarding listings based on a model partially started in the Valley.
Saguache County is facing the possible listing of the Gunnison Sage Grouse, an action that would touch 11 other Colorado counties. The governments, working with active sage-grouse groups including the Poncha Pass Gunnison Sage-Grouse Work Group, united last year to revise the species’ needs and actions to date, revisit strategy and consider the impacts of future federal intervention like potential road closures.
The collaborative, whose methods are appealing to the CCA and neighboring sage-grouse and RGCT listing threatened Hinsdale County, has made progress with the recent reintroduction of several sage-grouse on Poncha Pass, and they are maintaining . The FWS will be made aware of the reintroduction’s progress before making a ruling in March.
“The implications of a listing are very huge,” said Hindsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier about creating government, agency and community task forces via telephone during Monday’s meeting. “There are things we can do.”
The implications from an endangered or threatened listing for any species can vary from jeopardizing tourism dollars due to changes in the public’s access to public lands to land owners having to enter into agreements prioritizing the species existence, actual or potential. Listings also come along with the identification of critical habitat, which calls for special management and protection, and include an area the species does not currently occupy, but will be needed for its recovery.
“Designating critical habitat outside the area currently occupied by RGCT would create an additional hardship for the residents of the San Luis Valley without providing any additional benefit to the RGCT,” Vandiver stated. “These residents already face the effect of a prolonged drought and the risk that the state may seek to restrict or curtail the operation of their irrigation wells, thus making it nearly impossible to continue successful farming or ranching operations.”
Streams historically capable of supporting the RGCT that the FWS could deem critical habitat include Rio Grande, Pecos and Canadian River Basins, according to CPW data, and presently the fish only occupy about 11 percent of the historic waters. There are 127 RGCT conservation populations range wide.
Some RGCT populations thrive on private Costilla County lands like the Trinchera Ranch, Alves said. Ute Creek, where the species was first discovered in 1857, runs through the now FWS conservation easement protected ranch, further complementing its reputation for protecting natural resources.
“This is a reason we have a good start on the conservation itself,” said Alves, commending the Trinchera Ranch for its vision to protect the RGCT, which some science points out is truly being conserved because of the introduction and poor management of nonnative trout species.
“The most significant threats are the presence of non-native trout and habitat loss,” stated Council of Trout Unlimited New Mexico Chair Arnold Atkins and Colorado Chair Rick Matsumoto in a letter to the FWS. “The effects of the presence of brown trout in a cutthroat stream have been documented in the scientific literature, and the experience of our members bears out what the literature tells us: once brown trout enter a stream, the native cutthroat disappear or are dramatically reduced in numbers, typically within a decade or less.”
In Colorado, and to a lesser degree in New Mexico, according to the Trout Unlimited letter, the presence of nonnative brook trout has had a similar effect.
“Hybridization with nonnative rainbow trout or other cutthroat subspecies remains a significant threat, although the agencies have taken steps to reduce it, including stocking triploid rainbows or not stocking rainbows at all in watersheds where RGCT are found,” the chairmen wrote. “… Trout Unlimited’s objective is to ensure that the RGCT continues to exist and that RGCT populations are protected and restored over a broader and more resilient range of waters.”
The FWS is accepting comments at the following address : Susan Rogers Oetker, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 1875 Century Blvd. NE Suite 200, Atlanta, Ga., 30345.