Chihuahuan Desert NFCN

Conservation Profile


Chihuahuan Desert

Biotic Province



habitat fragmentation, barriers to migration, loss of natural flow regime, reduced stream flow, spring flow declines, channel narrowing and sediment accumulation, groundwater pollution, habitat loss, non-native species (habitat modification, hybridization, competition and predation)


Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, University of Texas, Texas Tech University, Fort Worth Zoo, The Nature Conservancy of Texas, World Wildlife Fund, Desert Fish Habitat Partnership, Big Bend Conservation Alliance, Devils River Conservancy

Fishes of Concern

Scaphirhynchus platorynchus  (Shovelnose Sturgeon)

Atractosteus spatula (Alligator Gar)

Anguilla rostrata (American Eel)

Campostoma ornatum (Mexican Stoneroller)

Cyprinella lutrensis blairi (Maravillas Red Shiner)

Cyprinella panarcys (Conchos Shiner)

Cyprinella proserpina (Proserpine Shiner)

Dionda sp 1  (Conchos Roundnose Minnow)

Dionda argentosa (Manantial Roundnose Minnow)

Dionda diaboli (Devils River Minnow)

Dionda episcopa (Roundnose Minnow)

Gila pandora (Rio Grande Chub)

Hybognathus amarus (Rio Grande Silvery Minnow)

Macrhybopsis aestivalis (Speckled Chub)

Notropis braytoni (Tamaulipas Shiner)

Notropis chihuahua (Chihuahua Shiner)

Notropis jemezanus (Rio Grande Shiner)

Notropis megalops (West Texas Shiner)

Notropis orca (Phantom Shiner)

Notropis simus pecosensis (Pecos Bluntnose Shiner)

Notropis simus simus (Rio Grande Bluntnose Shiner)

Rhinichthys cataractae (Longnose Dace)

Cycleptus sp (Rio Grande Blue Sucker)

Moxostoma albidum (Longlip Jumprock)

Moxostoma austrinum (Mexican Redhorse)

Ictalurus sp (Chihuahua Catfish)

Ictalurus sp (Rio Grande Blue Catfish)

Ictalurus lupus (Headwater Catfish)

Prietella phreatophila (Mexican Blindcat)

Oncorhynchus clarkii virginalis (Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout)

Gambusia amistadensis (Amistad Gambusia)

Gambusia gaigei (Big Bend Gambusia)

Gambusia krumholzi (Spotfin Gambusia)

Gambusia nobilis (Pecos Gambusia)

Gambusia senilis (Blotched Gambusia)

Cyprinodon bovinus (Leon Springs Pupfish)

Cyprinodon elegans (Comanche Springs Pupfish)

Cyprinodon eximius (Conchos Pupfish)

Cyprinodon pecosensis (Pecos Pupfish)

Micropterus salmoides nuecensis (Rio Grande Largemouth Bass)

 Etheostoma grahami (Rio Grande Darter)

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The Chihuahuan Desert Native Fish Conservation Network contains six NFCAs (Upper Big Bend, Lower Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains Streams, Davis Mountains Streams, Pecos River, and Devils River) that are comprised of the most remote watersheds in the state and contain a wide variety of habitats with many uniquely adapted plants and animals. In addition to flows from the Rio Grande, Río Conchos and Pecos River, three major (Hueco-Mesilla Bolsons, Pecos Valley and Edwards-Trinity Plateau) and six or more minor aquifers provide water to the region.

Deep trenching of streams by erosion from overgrazing and deforestation (Ohmart and Anderson 1982), introductions of exotic species and extinction of native species may cause irreversible damage to these ecosystems. Under these conditions droughts are even more devastating. Droughts not only reduce rainfall, but also cause an increase in groundwater pumping for agricultural and municipal uses. Such extreme conditions put stress on fish community equilibrium with more tolerant species gaining a competitive and numerical advantage. Tributary creeks tend to be impacted more severely, yet are critical to the breeding and rearing of young of many of the indigenous species. These changes have been gradual and long-term, taking place since the mid-1800s (Miller 1961), but their effects have been compounded over time and are now becoming dramatic. While perturbations such as pollution, reduced groundwater and dam construction are theoretically fixable, recovery to a pristine state is unlikely.

Approximately half of the native fishes of the Chihuahuan Desert are threatened with extinction or already are extinct (Hubbs 1990). Likely extinctions from this area include: Maravillas Red Shiner Cyprinella lutrensis blairi, Phantom Shiner Notropis orca, Rio Grande Bluntnose Shiner Notropis simus simus and Amistad Gambusia Gambusia amistadensis (Miller et al. 1989). Extirpations include Rio Grande Shiner Notropis jemezanus in the New Mexico portion of the Rio Grande (Propst et al. 1987) and Shovelnose Sturgeon Scaphirhynchus platorynchus, Rio Grande Silvery Minnow Hybognathus amarus, Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis and Blotched Gambusia Gambusia senilis in Texas (Hubbs et al. 2008). Endemic species other than fishes are also being lost from this region (e.g., Rio Grande Monkeyface Quadrula couchiana, False Spike Quincuncina mitchelli, and Mexican Fawnsfoot Truncilla cognata; Howells and Garrett 1995). Left unchecked, this trend of species extirpation and extinction is likely to continue.

Another significant threat to a substantial portion of the Chihuahuan NFCN is the establishment of invasive Giant Reed Arundo donax and Saltcedar Tamarix spp. These non-native plants have effectively channelized stream segments and the resulting constricted flow has reduced shallow, backwater habitat and changed bottom sediments from a mixture of sand and gravels to one of primarily larger gravels and cobble. The effect of the dense stands has also armored and stabilized the riverbanks, thus preventing natural sediments and sand to be available for habitat within the river itself (Garrett and Edwards 2014).

The streams of the Chihuahuan NFCN hardly resemble their natural state where many of the original water courses were lined with gallery forests and diverse riparian zones. Exploitation of limited resources, particularly groundwater pumping, has degraded that environment, caused extirpation and extinction of species and ultimately, loss of habitat and ecosystems (Smith and Miller 1985). The few relatively natural faunas and fairly intact ecosystems that remain need careful management if they are to be preserved.


Garrett, G. P., and R. J. Edwards. 2014. Changes in fish populations in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Pages 396–408 in Proceedings of the sixth symposium on the natural resources of the Chihuahuan Desert region (C.A. Hoyt and J. Karges, editors). Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, Fort Davis, TX.

Howells, R. G., and G. P. Garrett. 1995. Freshwater mussel surveys of Rio Grande tributaries in Chihuahua, Mexico. Triannual Unionid Report 8:10.

Hubbs, C. 1990. Declining fishes of the Chihuahuan Desert. Pages 89-96 in Third Symposium on Resources of the Chihuahuan Desert Region (Powell, A.M. et al. eds.). Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.

Hubbs, C., R.J. Edwards, and G.P. Garrett. 2008. An annotated checklist of the freshwater fishes of Texas, with keys to identification of species. Second Edition.  Texas Journal of Science Supplement (July):2–87.

Miller, R. R. 1961. Man and the changing fish fauna of the American Southwest. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 46:365-404.

Miller, R. R, J. D. Williams, and J. E. Williams. 1989. Extinctions of North American fishes during the past century. Fisheries 14(6):22-38.

Ohmart, R. D., and B. W. Anderson. 1982. North American desert riparian ecosystems. Pages 433-466 in G.L. Bender, editor. Reference handbook on the deserts of North America. Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.

Probst, D. L., G. L. Burton, and B. H. Pridgeon. 1987. Fishes of the Rio Grande between Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, New Mexico. Southwestern Naturalist 32:408-411.

Smith, M. L., and R. R. Miller. 1985. Conservation of desert spring habitats and their endemic fauna in northern Chihuahua, Mexico. Proceedings of the Desert Fishes Council 13:54-63.