The tough life of the Verde trout
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride
VERDE RIVER - There is only one fish that can remotely lay claim to being the Verde River's official fish.
It is a somewhat flat-headed member of the minnow family, dusky green to bluish gray on top, silver white below, and between 9 and 14 inches at maturity.
It was known for years as the Verde trout.
Its Latin name is Gila robusta robusta, named for the Verde's larger watershed and in recognition of its often-noted strength and vigor.
Today it is commonly known as the roundtail chub, in recognition of the distinctly rounded tips of its tail fin and the fact it is not a trout.
And as of this month, it found itself, once again, a candidate for the Endangered Species list. A listing that will put it in a category with about 250 other species, all deemed to be at risk for extinction, but lacking full federal protection.
Always a bridesmaid, never the bride -- so to speak.
Since the mid-1800s, the roundtail chub has been recognized as a separate species and once ranged throughout the Colorado River drainage from Wyoming's Green River to Mexico.
Early on, the roundtail developed a reputation among fisherman as one of the best fighting fish in the world, ounce for ounce (robusta! robusta!).
Fishermen, however, are not the ones responsible for driving it to the brink of extinction.
Over the last 100 years, the fish has lost about half of its former habitat in the upper Colorado River basin and about two-thirds in the lower basin.
Those who have studied the fish's plight cite dams, irrigation projects, erosion, and competition for food and predation by non-native species, such as bass and channel catfish, as the primary causes of its demise.
According to Jeff Humphreys with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency's finding that the roundtail chub warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, does not mean it is going to have a wall of protection thrown up around its native habitat anytime soon.
"Once we have determined a species is warranted, we can do one of two things. We can propose it be listed as an endanger species, which is a much more involved and expensive process. Or we can determine it's warranted, but precluded from listing by species that are at greater risk of extinction.
"It's put in a holding pattern, while we dedicate the limited funds that Congress provides us, on species that have a higher rating of being close to the cusp of extinction. The roundtail chub is in that holding pattern," says Humphreys.
On a scale of 1 to 10 with one being the most threatened species, the roundtail chub is an 8, according to Humphreys.
The only reason the roundtail chub was considered for the listing is because of a suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, an endangered species protection organization that has waged a war of sorts with the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service.
They are less than happy that another species has been deemed worthy of federal protection, but left in a holding pattern because of lack of funding.
"In one sense it's a victory that we got them to admit that it does warrant listing as an endangered species, but they have delayed actually taking that step," says Noah Greenwald, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's endangered species program.
But that may change soon, says Greenwald.
A case pending in federal court in Washington D. C. is asking the court to declare the continued delay of endangered species listings, as illegal.
"There is a backlog of 250 species on the candidate list. Many have been sitting on there for decades" says Greenwald, "We expect a ruling in the next year or so.
"Then hopefully we can work out a schedule to get some of these species listed. I believe the roundtail chub will be listed within the next few years."