November 28, 2003
Ariz. Wants Endangered Fish To Fight West Nile Virus
The Associated Press
TUCSON Arizona wants to use endangered fish in its fight against West Nile virus.
State wildlife officials are finalizing an agreement to allow rare topminnow and pupfish to be used for mosquito control in ponds and wetlands.
The four species the Gila topminnow, Yaqui topminnow, desert pupfish and Quitobaquito pupfish have all been pushed toward extinction by habitat loss.
Backers say the plan promises to benefit both fish and humans.
The federal Endangered Species Act typically shields listed species with rigorous protections. But a novel application of the law could turn backyard ponds and stormwater basins along highways into breeding grounds for imperiled fish that are eventually reintroduced into the wild.
One possible target is Sierra Vista's sewage treatment plant, where officials have used a water cannon to spray insecticide on 40 acres of artificial wetlands, spending around $15,000 a year.
But the bulrushes and cattails have gotten so thick that the larvicide sometimes doesn't reach the young insects, forcing Sierra Vista to harvest or burn the vegetation.
Cochise County has yet to record a human case of West Nile, but mosquitoes, birds and horses across the county tested positive for the virus this year.
Two human cases of West Nile were reported in Pima County this fall, and mosquitoes have been a problem at Tucson Water's Sweetwater Wetlands.
But there are no plans to use native fish there because variable water quality might harm them, hydrologist Bruce Prior said. The city-owned utility also is satisfied with results from prescribed burns and application of a natural larvicide, he said.
Pima County officials, however, have talked about introducing native fish to a park on Tucson's northeast side.
The obstacles and disincentives to help endangered species prompted federal officials to create "safe harbor" agreements in the mid-1990s.
The agreements allow landowners to restore, enhance or maintain habitat for listed species. The government, in turn, provides technical assistance and promises it won't punish the voluntary conservation with additional regulations, or penalize people if some of the listed species die.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is drafting the safe harbor agreement, which would apply to areas in the Gila River Basin below 5,000 feet elevation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must approve it and hopes to sign off this spring.