YUMA, Ariz. – The fastest land mammal in North America and a large-footed marsh bird in the Southwest have been listed as endangered for more than half a century. The Sonoran pronghorn and the Yuma Ridgway’s rail are featured in a vibrant new mural at the Arizona Western College theater that’s meant to show how climate change and human activity are serious threats to these animals.
The Sonoran pronghorn’s range is bounded by Interstates 10 and 19, the Colorado River and the border with Mexico. The Yuma ridgway’s rail, formerly known as the Yuma clapper rail, makes its home in the wetlands and flatlands ranging from the Colorado River Delta in Mexico up the Colorado River to southern Nevada. There are more rail populations along the Gila River into Phoenix, and by the shrinking Salton Sea in California.
“They sort of represent a lot of what the Yuma ecology is really defined by: the meeting of the rivers and the broad, open desert; that’s kind of austere,” said artist Roger Peet, who’s coordinating the Endangered Species Mural Project in association with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.
The mural is meant to bring awareness to how change in the environment threatens the survival of these species, which were listed as endangered in 1967. Drought caused by overextraction and misuse of water threaten the rail’s marshy habitat, while the pronghorns are affected by Border Patrol activity along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Studies show that the pronghorn were being disturbed an average of once every four hours by Border Patrol helicopters, by Border Patrol SUVs, and I mean, imagine being one of only 19 animals left,” said Laiken Jordahl, who works on borderlands issues for the Center for Biological Diversity. “You have to repopulate your entire species or face extinction and you’re being disturbed every four hours.”
Since 2002, when there were just 19 Sonoran pronghorn in the U.S., the population has increased to about 200. In 2018, the Yuma Ridgeway’s rail population in the U.S. improved to an estimated 757.
Peet, who lives in Portland, Ore., has painted many murals around the country featuring endangered animals. He usually partners with a local artist in each location.
This time, he partnered with Lucinda Hinojos of Phoenix, who’s widely known as La Morena. She traditionally paints immigration murals, and this was her first environmental piece.
“These type of murals actually unite and bring people together and that’s what I love about murals and that’s one of the reasons why I paint is to educate and bring people together, so they get the information they need,” Hinojos said.
The Endangered Mural Project has 20 murals in multiple cities, including sockeye salmon in Portland, a blue whale in Los Angeles and a jaguar in Tucson.
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – The temperature is hovering around 90 degrees as Dale Ryden and I float down the Colorado River near Grand Junction. The turbid water looks inviting, a blessed reprieve from the heat, but if either of us jumped in, we’d be electrocuted.
“It can actually probably be lethal to people if you get in there,” said Ryden, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ryden’s co-workers cruise by in gray and blue inflatable rafts, their bows fitted with a rig that suspends metal spheres the size of disco balls from electric cables. When the balls are lowered into the river, a generator at the back of each raft sends current through the balls into the water. What lies beneath the surface is a mystery the biologists intend to explore.
“To get at the animal we’re studying, we have to actually find ways to capture them and take them out of their natural habitat,” Ryden said. “And so, one of the ways we can do that is electrofishing.”
Fish that venture near the electrified rafts are momentarily stunned and pulled from the water with nets. Today’s mission is to remove non-native fish – such as smallmouth bass that feed on the fry of the four endangered species found in the river. The bass will be collected, measured, weighed, stored in bags and eventually sent to a landfill.
Any of the four endangered species – bonytail, razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub – we encounter will be treated with care and released back into the river.
Ryden has a tough, and some would say impossible, job. Every day, he tries to find ways to help fish that evolved to live only in this river system – one of the most engineered ecosystems in the world – survive.
Fish in the Colorado River are a product of harsh conditions.
Over millions of years, the rushing, sediment-laden water sculpted their bodies with characteristic ridges and bumps, making them well-equipped to handle its highs and lows. But human interference in the rivers they call home has pushed a few to the edge of extinction.
“They’ve survived three explosions of the Yellowstone supervolcano,” Ryden said. “They were here when mastodons and woolly mammoths went extinct.”
However, the era of big dam building in the West fundamentally altered their river home over the past 100 years or so, Ryden said. Dams and diversions have made life close to impossible for these fish. Then people started adding toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and a range of invasive fish for sportsmen to catch.
“Call it the death by a thousand cuts,” Ryden said. “So they could survive any one of those problems probably fairly well. When you start throwing them all on top of them, then it becomes a lot more problematic.”
About an hour into our trip, there’s a flurry of activity on one of the rafts. Technician Andrew Disch dips his net and pulls out the river’s historic top predator – the Colorado pikeminnow. It has been listed as endangered for more than 50 years.
The fish is impressive, measuring about 3 feet long. But it pales compared to the pikeminnows that once hunted the river, Ryden said.
“Back in the day, these guys used to get 6 feet long and a hundred pounds.”
The pikeminnow gulps down prey with a mouth so huge you could put your whole hand inside without touching the sides – something Ryden has tested personally. The torpedo-bodied fish is pale green on top with a white belly and pinkish tail.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Travis Francis scanned a microchip biologists inserted in the pikeminnow years ago.
“We haven’t we haven’t seen this fish since 2004,” he said, adding that biologists make dozens of passes over this section of river each summer. They’ve documented some pikeminnow migrating several hundred river miles from the San Juan River, down through Lake Powell and up to Grand Junction. Early settlers nicknamed the pikeminnow “the white salmon” for such behavior.
Ryden estimated 400 pikeminnow exist in the upper reaches of the Colorado River, and close to 800 in stretches of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado. He likens the pikeminnow to a lioness on the Serengeti: Each is at the apex of its food chain. Now imagine you built a series of concrete walls around the lion, boxing her in, making it difficult to hunt. That’s what dams on the Colorado River have done to the pikeminnow, Ryden said.
After the fish was measured and scanned, Ryden gently picked it up and walked into the river.
“Come here, baby,” he whispered.
With both hands he lowers the minnow into the water. It disappears into the murk.
During this day on the river, Ryden repeatedly referred to the endangered species as “our fish.” He takes ownership of their protection. They’re something different and more special than the non-native fish that surround them.
“I’ve earned a lot of respect for them,” he said. “I think if you put that many issues in front of people that we had to adapt to in a very short amount of time, I think as a species we would have a very hard time existing in some of the world-changing conditions that these fish have.”
Defining success in recovery
Since 1988, recovery programs for endangered Colorado River fish have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, funded by a mix of hydropower revenues and money from agencies within the Department of the Interior. Ryden said the effort is beginning to pay off.
Two species – the humpback chub and the razorback sucker – are on their way to being downgraded from endangered to threatened.
But deciding whether an endangered species is “recovered” is a subject for debate. Some environmental groups have questioned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to downlist the two species. In the case of the razorback sucker, they contend, most of its population growth is the result of an intense breeding and stocking program, not reproduction in the wild. Going forward, it’s unclear how much government intervention will be necessary to keep the sucker from going extinct.
In its proposal to downlist the razorback, the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program recommends that Fish and Wildlife revise the program’s goals, and that its current goals for “recovery,” written in 2002, are inadequate and dated.
The program, a partnership of local, state and federal agencies, water and power interests, and environmental groups, is set to expire in 2023. Director Tom Chart said the partners are rethinking what recovery of means, and how best to achieve it. Current goals for the program don’t fully address the need for more coordinated management of flows from the Colorado River system’s reservoirs, removal of non-native fish and stocking of endangered species past 2023, he said.
“The Colorado River is one of the most altered ecosystems in the world,” Chart said in an email. “The (Fish and Wildlife) Service should revise recovery goals for this species in these contexts and based on the experiences and information gathered.”
‘Some people even kiss them’
Although the Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires the government to save these fish, it can be tough convincing the public that they’re valuable and the effort isn’t in vain. A razorback sucker, Ryden noted, doesn’t have the charisma of other wildlife.
“Basically we’ve made the judgment through the Endangered Species Act that it (the endangered animal) is there for a reason and it has a right to exist,” he said. “And it doesn’t have to be a polar bear or an eagle.”
In our last few miles on the river, the biologists net a razorback sucker – the second of the day – and head toward the river bank to scan it. The grayish-green fish is notable for its pronounced hump, which looks like the keel of an overturned boat.
That’s when the Morton family from Houston – mom Kate and kids Simon and Claire – floated by on a raft. Ryden, seeing an opportunity to educate the public on the value of the razorback sucker, called them over. He pulled the sucker from the livewell of the raft and presented it to the Mortons.
“Go ahead, give it a pet,” Ryden suggested.
Simon gently rubbed his fingers along the fish’s scales. Claire tentatively placed an index finger on the razorback’s head.
“Isn’t that special?” her mother asked. “Wow, that is an awesome fish.”
When Ryden first started working on the Colorado River, razorbacks nearly had been wiped out. He didn’t see one during his first four years on the job. One day, a crew brought one into the hatchery for breeding. He remembers the biologists crowding around it, marveling at the novelty of seeing a wild razorback.
“Some people even kiss them if you’re really brave,” Ryden told Simon. “Just right on the cheek.”
Ryden leaned in, nearly touching his lips to the fish, and made a kiss sound.
Now, after years of stocking tens of thousands into some reaches of the river, Ryden says razorback suckers are plentiful enough that you can find one on any summer day and give it a kiss.
This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
WASHINGTON – Federal officials said they will re-evaluate the threatened species status of the western yellow-billed cuckoo, after petitions from Arizona miners, ranchers and other groups argued that the species is no different from thriving eastern populations of the bird.
The notice Wednesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes in response to a May 2017 letter from the groups who argued that the 2014 decision to declare the bird threatened was a mistake. They also said that threats to the bird’s survival “do not now and never have risen to the level that protection under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) is warranted.”
But environmental groups said they will fight any move to remove the cuckoo, which they said “plays a unique role in an ecosystem, being up there in the canopy and ambushing caterpillars and other small invertebrates.”
“These tenacious, beautiful birds play an essential role in balancing nature in areas, but they also build a metric for how well we conserve beautiful areas that we all value,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that while the yellow-billed cuckoo is found throughout the eastern and central U.S., the western subspecies of the bird is disappearing over much of the West. They prefer dense wooded areas with water nearby, but much of its habitat in the West has been lost to farming and housing, the government said.
It also said that the birds, as long-distance, nocturnal fliers, are “vulnerable to collisions with tall buildings, cell towers, radio antennas, wind turbines and other structures.”
The National Park Service said the western yellow-billed cuckoo has nearly vanished in the Pacific Northwest, with most of the remaining birds found in “isolated patches of riparian habitat along rivers in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.” It is found in limited numbers in every county in Arizona, according to Fish and Wildlife.
The Center for Biological Diversity said the cuckoo’s western population was “first identified as needing federal protection in 1986,” and the center first petitioned to have it listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.
But opponents – including the Arizona Mining Association and Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, among others – are challenging the listing of the western birds as a separate subspecies. Their petition said that based on “both new data and new interpretations of previously available information,” they believe the western populations of the bird are no different from the eastern segments.
The government has said that there is enough new evidence for it to begin a review.
“The crux of the petition is questioning the differentiation between the eastern and the western (yellow-billed cuckoo),” said Jennifer Norris, the field supervisor at the Sacramento office of Fish and Wildlife. “The petition was to delist it. If we got through this long process and agree with that proposal, it would be taken off the list.”
Over the next year, Fish and Wildlife officials will collaborate with state agencies and other authorities to complete a comprehensive species status assessment, looking at the fundamentals about the species and its status and threats.
But agency officials stressed that this is just the first step in what could be a long process.
“The western (population) of the yellow-billed cuckoo will remain listed as threatened pending what is realistically a two-year scientific process,” said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife