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Southwest Fish Proposed|for Listing and Habitat

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to list the Zuni bluehead sucker as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and designate critical habitat for its survival, according to the agency's proposal. The action is in response to a 2011 settlement between the agency and environmental groups, a Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) press release noted.

The eight to nine-inch long algae-eating sucker was first identified as a Category 2 Candidate for listing in 1985, because "conclusive data on biological vulnerability and threats were not available to support a proposed rule at the time" the action stated. The agency maintained the Category 2 designation for the fish in subsequent annual reviews until entirely eliminating the Category 2 designation in 1996, which resulted in the fish no longer having a candidate status. Five years later, in 2001, the fish was once again added to the candidate list, but its listing was "precluded by other higher priority listing activities," the agency said.

The CBD petitioned the agency to protect the fish in 2004, and the 2011 settlement between the USFWS and the CBD resulted in an agreement to speed listing decisions for 757 species across the country, the CBD noted in its statement.

The fish has lost 90 percent of its range and now survives in three fragmented populations in New Mexico and Arizona. The suckers have been sharply reduced in the Zuni River watershed in New Mexico due to 27 chemical treatments during the 1960s to remove sunfish and minnows for the formation of a rainbow trout sport fishery. "These treatments eliminated the Zuni bluehead sucker from most of the Zuni River drainage," the proposed rule stated.

The low population numbers and population fragmentation combine with threats from drought, nonnative predation, water diversion and sedimentation to reduce the overall viability of the species. "The risk of extinction is high because the remaining populations are small, isolated, and have limited potential for recolonization," the agency said.

In a separate action, the USFWS proposed 293 stream miles as critical habitat for the species' survival. The habitat would be in three units, on the Zuni River, Kinlichee Creek and the San Juan River.

The agency requests comments and information on the listing proposal and the critical habitat designation by March 26. Written public meeting requests are due by March 11.

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