House Panel Considers Extending Endangered Fish Recovery Programs

WASHINGTON (CN) –  The House Natural Resources Committee considered legislation Wednesday that will extend endangered fish recovery programs in the Upper Colorado and San Juan rivers and direct the Interior Department to conduct an in-depth review of the success of the program to date.

The bill, the Endangered Fish Recovery Programs Extension Act of 2017, is the first sponsored by Rep. John Curtis, the newest member of Utah’s congressional delegation.

He was elected in November to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who stepped down in June, citing a “mid-life crisis” and desire to spend more time with family.

The legislation considered Wednesday would do two things: first, it would allow for the continued annual collection of fees from water and power users to continue funding the collaborative restoration efforts involving state and federal agencies, tribes and other stakeholders. Without the bill, the collection of those fees is set to expire in 2018.

Second, the bill directs the Interior Department to assess how well the programs are working and how they can be improved.

The Upper Colorado and San Juan river basin recovery programs were established under cooperative agreements as multi-agency partnerships in 1988 and 1992, respectively, to improve the health of the basins and restore the populations of four endangered native fish species: the bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and razorback sucker.

Henry Maddux, director of recovery programs for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, told lawmakers Wednesday that the programs were born of a realization that “collaboration is better than litigation” and that “sound science” has the endangered fish species well on the way to recovery.

The legislation’s goal was always to delist the fish, he added, telling the committee that goal may actually be realized in a few years if the funding for the programs is extended.

The bill requires the Interior Department to produce a status report on the programs by 2023. Supporters of the measure, which now include both Republicans and Democrats, say the study will help them and others understand the current state of health of the basin, and will be a practical measure of whether any or all of the imperiled fish are ready to come off the Endangered Species List.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., asked Maddux to provide an example of the sound science that has grown out of the programs.

“When we started working on fish we knew very little,” Maddux replied. “Through fish stocking, we learned we were putting fish in the wrong areas. But as we’ve learned we’ve adapted.”

He went on to discuss the seasonal water releases carried out at  Colorado’s Flaming Gorge Dam.

“We were thinking achieving a high peak and flooding those bottomlands was best for the fish. But nothing was happening,” Maddux said. “We learned, through science, we needed to time the releases with when razorback chub eggs were hatching on the river.”

“Now, peak at Flaming Gorge is regulated to match when fish are coming off spawning bars,” he said. “Now we’re seeing 2,000 fish out of just one bottomland.”

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