On Oct. 18, the Fish and Wildlife Service published the final rule to reclassify the humpback chub from endangered to threatened in the Federal Register. This is the result of many years of dedicated recovery efforts, and it represents significant progress.
The reclassification is the result of collaboration between state, regional, Tribal and federal organizations, including WAPA, as well as private partners, with the fish now considered “threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. This follows the publication of the proposed rule in January 2020 and subsequent public comment period.
WAPA has been involved with humpback chub recovery efforts for decades.
“From the very beginning of the programs, and going back to the first days of the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program and the Recovery Implementation Program, we have been involved," said Fish Biologist Shane Capron. “From all the way back in the '80s."
Capron was one author of the species status assessment that led to the downlisting and is a member of the humpback chub recovery team.
“On that team, I argued the science of why chub are not 'in danger of going extinct,' which is the key question when determining if a species is endangered or just threatened," explained Capron. “We have supported a variety of recovery policy objectives, including a proposal that I developed to reintroduce humpback chub to the Yampa River, which is an ongoing but key project to recovery."
Colorado River Storage Project Management Center employees have participated in many research trips to support the science teams in Grand Canyon, helping to monitor and count humpback chub. They also helped the U.S. Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center to develop experiments.
Many of these experiments were intended to benefit native fish, such as bug-flow experiments aimed at boosting available food, and others have tested methods to support the populations of humpback chub with as little impact on hydropower as possible.
“Some experiments have worked, others haven't, but that is the nature of learning," Capron said.
Specific examples include the Spring Disturbance Flow in March and the Flow Spike Experiment in June.
Public comments helped shape the final rule, which includes updated monitoring data and information on the potential effects of climate change on water availability in the Colorado River Basin.
In their press release on the subject, FWS Acting Regional Director Matt Hogan described the action as the result of collaborative conservation.
“Reclassifying this distinctive fish from endangered to threatened is the result of many years of cooperative work by conservation partners in the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program," Hogan said. “We thank everyone involved for their efforts as we look toward addressing the remaining challenges in the Colorado River Basin."
The humpback chub was included on the FWS's very first list of endangered species in 1967, and it's stayed there ever since.
The humpback chub was first documented in the Lower Colorado River Basin in the 1940s and the Upper Colorado River Basin in the 1970s. It has adapted to live in the whitewater found in the river's canyon-bound areas, with large, curved fins that allow it to swim in swift currents. It has a fleshy hump behind its head, which evolved to make it harder for predators to eat them and gave the humpback chub its name.
“These are very interesting and unique fish that only live in the Colorado River," said Capron. “If we lose them, they are gone forever. They are dinosaurs in a way, having been around for millions of years, but they also represent something much more in regard to the rivers and maintaining our heritage for us and native peoples, about maintaining the ecosystems and the landscape that we all think is important."
According to the FWS, conservation and management efforts “have resulted in improved habitat and river flow conditions for the humpback chub over the past 15 years."
They also noted humpback chub population successes in particular areas, such as Westwater Canyon being home to more than 3,000 adults and the presence of more than 12,000 individuals at the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River.
In addition, they cited increasing densities in the western Grand Canyon and successful reintroduction at Havasu Creek and upstream portions of the Little Colorado River, as well as the stabilization of populations in the Black Rocks, Desolation, Gray and Cataract canyons. All populations in the Upper Basin have stabilized or increased, even as Lake Powell elevations have declined.
Capron has seen the difference with his own eyes.
“On one of my recent river trips in Grand Canyon, we started seining all the backwaters looking for native fish as we went downriver, something we hadn't done for a long time," he said. “What we noticed was that, almost wherever we stopped and found a backwater area, we found native fish like chub and others. It was part of this change going on in the canyon where we went from a non-native dominated river to one that is now dominated by native fish. It was a really spectacular change."
Of course, all of this good news does not mean that the humpback chub is out of the woods just yet.
“The main issues are non-native predators in the upper basin, and in the lower basin in Grand Canyon it is the condition of spawning areas in the Little Colorado River," Capron explained. “We also need to recover the extirpated population in the Yampa in Dinosaur National Park. That was a project we proposed and supported. We're hoping in the next three years to begin moving fish there. Showing that we can recover a lost population is an important part of recovery."
As part of this downlisting, the FWS has finalized a 4(d) rule that reduces the regulatory requirements for state fish and wildlife agencies and other nonfederal stakeholders when working to protect and recover the humpback chub. The term “4(d) rule" refers to protective regulations issued under section 4(d) of the ESA for threatened species.
Examples that they provided of this work include creating refuge populations, expanding the range of the species, removing non-native fish species and creating catch-and-release fishing opportunities.
“When I came on to work with WAPA in 2007, the opinion was that humpback chub recovery was not good," said Capron. “Nobody was talking about downlisting. I have been involved with numerous teams, discussions and failed draft recovery plans over the years, and it took a decade of arguing to help change people's minds about recovery."
He emphasized that recovery is a process rather than an overnight change, and that downlisting can be a helpful way to show progress and build support.
“I think there has been a change in opinion, not complete but a movement in the right direction, with these downlistings," Capron concluded. “That is a part of the story here, that by doing well and rewarding stakeholders, in my opinion, this is the way to recover the fish and build that support to keep going."
Note: Reed is a public affairs specialist.
Fish Biologist Craig Ellsworth, pictured here in 2003 during his first trip working with humpback chub in the Little Colorado River, is one of many WAPA employees who has been involved with the fish’s recovery since the 1980s.