Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele County’s Rush Valley is renown for once being home to the nation’s largest stockpile of antiquated chemical munitions. It is likewise well known for its incinerator that burned those munitions — more than one million of them — into oblivion from 1997 to 2012. But since late 2011, DCD has also become home for something that starkly contrasts with its grim past.
Surprisingly, that “something” is a tiny fish called Iotichthys Phlegethontis. Better known as the least chub, this little beast that grows barely more than two inches long and thought to be a few million years old, hails from ancient Lake Bonneville, and more specifically, the state of Utah. Although Lake Bonneville began to disappear some 15,000 years ago, the least chub found a way to thrive in streams, freshwater ponds, swamps, springs and tributaries around Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, Sevier Lake and other water sources along the Wasatch Front.
But in the 1940s they began to decline rapidly. By the late 1970s, they had reportedly disappeared from the Ogden River, Big and Little Cottonwood creeks, Provo River, and from numerous springs and ponds in Tooele, Juab and Millard counties. Urbanization, water development projects, livestock impacts, predation and competition are prime suspects behind the least chub’s struggles.
By the 1990s, this fish that once had all of Lake Bonneville as its domain, could be found only in six small spring-fed pools in Millard and Juab counties. Fearing the least chub’s future was doomed, environmental groups and the Goshute Indian Tribe intervened and petitioned the secretary of the interior in 2007 for the fish to be listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.
As reported in last Thursday’s page one story headlined, “Least chub making comeback at Deseret Chemical Depot ponds,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t listed the fish as threatened or endangered because of “higher priorities.” Yet, due to a unique agreement between the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and DCD, and proactive, collaborative work by both entities, the least chub may have a fighting chance to avoid extinction.
During fall 2011, the DWR planted some 500 least chubs in a pond on DCD property, which had been rehabilitated for the fish by DCD employees. That introduction was done to hopefully establish a “refuge population” for one of the six remaining vestiges of this ancient fish at Mona Springs in Juab County. Recent trappings of the DCD pond, and another nearby pond, reveal the least chub is thriving — in fact, better than hoped. Because of this success, the fish from DCD’s ponds may soon be used to supplement the Mona Springs population, a DWR aquatics biologist said.
Clearly, the DWR’s efforts are to stabilize the least chub and keep it from being listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. If either were to occur, the potential impacts and restrictions to development, agricultural and related activities on public and private lands could be significant.
The least chub is an important part of Utah’s — and Tooele County’s — natural history and biological diversity. They used to thrive here, which may explain in part why they’re responding so well in Rush Valley. The initiative by DWR and DCD to save the fish from extinction is lauded, and it is hoped this effort continues with success. This native fish from Lake Bonneville’s days deserves our care.