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Rio Grande Silvery Minnow: The Art of Compromise

All this week we're considering the Endangered Species Act and its affect on the wildlife, and people, of New Mexico.

It’s a conversation that can really only start in one place: with a little fish so, well, basic, that even its most dedicated caretakers are a little short on thrilling descriptors.

But the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow, perhaps more than any other species in New Mexico, has come to represent the power, and limitation, inherent in the ESA.

A story about the Silvery Minnow is really a story about the Rio Grande.  Michelle Shaughnessey, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, explains it this way: "If you look at the species that are highlighted as being sensitive, being on the endangered or threatened species list, those species represent...ecosystems in peril.  (Ecosystems) that have something going on with them that we need to take a look at."

It's a theme you'll hear echoed by many people during this series.  Another ubiquitous idea is that, when it comes to protecting those species and their ecosystems, the true power of the ESA lies in its ability to bring people together.  Or, "force" people together, depending on your perspective.

The minnow was listed as endangered in 1994.  Five years later, Fish and Wildlife designated the entire Middle Rio Grande as critical habitat, required for the minnow’s recovery.   

Agencies with an interest in any critical habitat area are required to tell Fish and Wildlife how their actions will affect the species.  Fish and Wildlife then issues what’s essentially a yay or nay in the form of a Biological Opinion.

Of course, getting people together and getting them to agree are two very different things.

In the silvery minnow situation there are 16 signatories to the so-called Middle Rio Grande Collaborative Program.  It's a group made up primarily of  water users and managers  to work on long range planning for the fish and river.

In some ways it's the ultimate demonstration of American bureaucracy at work.  Discussions are heavy on alphabet soup, and questions of exactly how much water has to be in the river, when, and for how long can end in data battles between dueling scientists.  And that’s not to mention the looming discussion of who’s going to give up what when it really comes down to the wire.

It’s nit picky stuff.  But, Jim Wilber says it works. Wilber is with the Bureau of Reclamation, one of two federal agencies sits at the head of the table at Collaborative Program meetings.

"It fluctuates, but I believe the Silvery Minnow is doing better now than it was a decade ago," he says.  "And the irrigation users and the municipal users have gotten the water they needed, so I think it's been successful with all of its challenges and bureaucracy." 

The current Biological Opinion is set to expire next year, and members of the Collaborative Program are now hard at work (and slightly behind) in the process of preparing for a new one.  One major question is whether the group will re-form as a Recovery Implementation Program, which would mean making the philosophical and practical leap to a focus on the minnow's recovery (and eventual de-listing) as opposed to basic survival.

But Wilber admits, even then, progress will be incremental.

"With all that's at stake...with the Rio Grande being the life blood both for the people and the ecosystem and the fish, change is really difficult," he says.

And that’s a big reason why many environmentalists have thrown up their hands in frustration, calling the Collaborative Program “one of the more nonfunctioning groups in the history of the ESA.”

One of those people is Steve Harris, river outfitter and Executive Director of Rio Grande Restoration.

"I don't think the Act really has proven to force anybody to do anything they didn't want to do," he says.  "People in the Collaborative Program participate so they can protect their interests.  That's a natural resistance to the kind of fundamental change that I think would lead to true recovery."

Harris says one major improvement would be to put the science-minded Fish and Wildlife Service at the head of the table, instead of the water users who sit there now.  He says that would put the focus back on the minnow, even while he acknowledges it may not be a comfortable role for the agency's biologists who "didn't read Machiavelli like they should have."

But Harris predicts that if the current drought continues without some major changes aimed at water conservation, the Middle Rio Grande could be headed for a standoff akin to the Klamath Falls situation in 2001 when a court ordered Fish and Wildlife to shut off irrigation water to thousands of farmers to protect several species of endangered fish. 

Head of the Interstate Stream Commission, Estevan Lopez, says something like that may have been possible in the Middle Rio Grande a decade ago, but no longer.  He says the whole point of the Collaborative Program has been to avoid exactly that kind of conflict by getting farmers, cities and conservationists to work together, bit by bit, toward a mutually beneficial solution.  And he thinks "bit by bit" is still the way to go.

"I don't think sweeping change across the board would be effective," says Lopez.  "I think we're giong to continue to fine tune our operations, and I think people are also going to begin to better understand what has bigger effects on fish and so forth.  So we'll know where we need to make more changes as we learn more.

And if some environmentalists are less-than-thrilled with its pace, most will still admit that the Endangered Species Act is one of…if not THE…best tools in existance for protecting  animals and their ecosystems.

What’s that quote about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others?  It might apply here too.

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