​By Philip Reed

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in April that the humpback chub, a federally protected fish that lives in the Colorado River, may find its classification downlisted from endangered to threatened within the next year.

“A species being downlisted like this is a big deal for us, for a lot of reasons,” said Fish Biologist Shane Capron. “There aren’t many downlistings or delistings that occur. A development like this proves that progress can be made. It proves what we can do when we work together.”

Long time coming

This proposed reclassification is the result of a species status assessment and five-year review conducted by FWS, which concluded that the risk of extinction for the humpback chub is low.

According to the assessment, the humpback chub population in the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers is stable, and relatively large, at around 12,000 adults.

The assessment also determined that four smaller populations of humpback chub in the Green and Colorado rivers of the upper Colorado River basin do not appear to be in immediate danger of extinction.

All five humpback chub populations are persisting in the wild, without the need for hatchery stocking.

“Although this unique fish is making a big step toward recovery it still needs help,” wrote FWS in its press release. “Conservation work by a diverse group of stakeholders has been one of the key contributions in recovering this native fish. State, tribal, federal and private stakeholders collaborate via the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program to continue the monitoring programs and to reduce threats to this species’ recovery.”

The humpback chub was included on FWS’ very first list of endangered species in 1967, and it’s stayed there ever since. 

“This one has been a long battle,” said Capron. “We’ve done a lot of work over the years to support this recovery.”

“Endangered species recovery in altered and heavily managed ecosystems like the Colorado River is a complicated endeavor,” said Service Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh. “Our best chance for continued success rests in the power of these collaborative partnerships.”

Green grass and high tides

Programs are designed to assist in the recovery of endangered species, whether by removing predators, bolstering food sources or restoring the health of the species’ habitat. However recovery is attempted, there’s one thing these programs have in common: They can be very expensive.

“Programs like this can represent an investment of many millions of dollars,” explained Capron, “and there needs to be progress made toward recovery to reinforce stakeholder support.”

That support can be difficult to maintain. If species recovery projects don’t show progress, stakeholders may not see it as being worth the investment. If they show significant progress, though, stakeholders may turn away because they don’t believe further support is necessary. 

Capron, however, has an optimistic view of this dichotomy. “Keeping a species on the endangered list can be seen as an impetus to keep up efforts,” he said, “and seeing it downlisted can prove conservation works, encouraging others to take efforts seriously.”

Of course, the most important thing about recovery work is success, not public sentiment. Downlisting or delisting endangered species generally signifies an increase in the health of the ecosystem.

“Recovery efforts are often long-term projects,” Capron said. “Significant damage can be done overnight, but it can take far longer to get things moving in the right direction. We didn’t see immediate improvements in the humpback chub population when we started, but we absolutely did over time.”

Watching the river flow

The humpback chub’s downlisting to threatened status is not quite a done deal yet. One of the next steps is opening the proposed downlisting to public comment. 

“Even if that is successful,” Capron explained, “we will keep working on the recovery plan that we’ve started. The only difference is that instead of developing a strategy to recover an endangered species, we’ll focus on recovering a threatened species to get it taken off the list entirely.”

In other words, the downlisting of the humpback chub would represent significant success, but it’s not the end goal. “Ultimately, we want to get them recovered and keep them off the list,” said Capron.

He identified that the fish is doing particularly well in the western Grand Canyon. “We are seeing new populations emerge there,” Capron said. “It’s a really exciting time for us.”

On the other hand, there are populations above the Glen Canyon Dam that are holding on, but are not growing at the rate the team would like to see. “It’s not for lack of trying,” explained Capron, “but we want to see some improvement there. I wouldn’t give those populations a gold star just yet.” 

A key effort in the upper basin will be to translocate chub to the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument to see if biologists can recover a lost population there. “If we can recover a lost population in the Yampa, this will mean a lot for recovery of the species overall,” said Capron. 

Additionally, there is always work to be done in terms of long-term planning for the recovery of humpback chub and other species. Biologists and other stakeholders will work to figure out how they can keep demonstrating progress. They will devise ways to repeat their success. They will research ways to work with Colorado and other states on future recovery programs. 

“We all come together to work on research and monitoring,” Capron said. “It’s a stakeholder-driven process, and it’s very much a group effort.”

The team involved with the recovery of the humpback chub is proud of what it’s achieved. In Capron’s estimation, their success is an assurance that their collaborative approach to conservation works.

“We all work together,” summarized Capron, “and this is proof that we work together effectively.”​

Last modified on September 12th, 2023