- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

SANTA FE, N.M., Feb. 20 (UPI) — An environmental group Thursday promised court action against a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan designating 157 miles of the Rio Grande as critical habitat for the endangered silvery minnow.

It's the latest chapter in a battle involving environmentalists, government agencies and water users along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The outcome could affect future water disputes in the arid West.

The new fish and wildlife designation was released Wednesday, replacing a plan overturned two years ago by a federal judge. Critical habitat identifies a geographic area that is essential to protecting an endangered species.

The middle reach of the Rio Grande in New Mexico designated as critical habitat is the only section of the river still inhabited by the minnow. Environmentalists believe the habitat should have included other sites once inhabited by the fish.

John Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, said Thursday that his organization would challenge the fish and wildlife service plan in court.

"It fails to identify and designate those areas that are essential to the recovery of the species," he said. "The whole purpose of critical habitat is to recover the species."

Horning said sections of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area of west Texas and the Pecos River in New Mexico should have been included.

Elizabeth Slown, a spokeswoman for the fish and wildlife service, said the agency sees those other sites as locations for future experimental re-introduction of the minnow. The agency is raising silvery minnows in its hatcheries at the present time.

The critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to consult with fish and wildlife on any activities that might affect the area. It does not affect land ownership or create a refuge or wilderness, the agency said.

The Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta Indian pueblos were deleted from the final designation because fish and wildlife said their voluntary conservation plans provided greater protection than the critical habitat plan.

The minnow is already the focus of a legal battle that has wound all the way to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That ruling could have a far-reaching impact on water rights in the West.

U.S. District Judge James Parker ruled last year that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service should use stored water from Heron Reservoir in northern New Mexico to keep the minnow alive in the river during times of long flows.

The city of Albuquerque and area farmers immediately appealed Parker's ruling to the Denver appeals court, saying it would affect their water supplies. The city plans to use that stored water for human consumption during future droughts and farmers need the water for their crops and livestock.

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