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A recommendation to place the Virgin River spinedace on the list of threatened species has drawn strong criticism from the Washington County Water Conservancy District.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recommendation could prevent future development of the river's resources and have dire impacts on the county's water requirements.In a 13-page report, district manager Ron Thompson said the service's recommendation to protect the fish is based on "speculation, conjecture and ignoring the best scientific data." He cited a study contracted by the district as more reliable, and said it should have been used as the basis for the FWS's recommendation.

The differences in the studies range from a few percentage points to a discrepancy of thousands.

For example, the FWS study, completed in January 1991, concluded there were 17,230 spinedace in the Santa Clara River, while the district's study reported more than 182,000.

Thompson said the FWS's study contains "numerous undocumented, unqualified threats and incorrect assumptions of trends and fish data."

FWS field supervisor Reed Harris said the district's study - conducted by Hardy, Adleyx & Associates - deliberately casts the fate of the species in a positive light.

"The district has contracted specifically with Hardy in an effort that reflects a positive outlook for the species," he said.

Harris maintains the fish population has been reduced extensively and something needs to be done.

"We`re trying to work on a conservation agreement with the district that may avoid the listing," he said.

District officials say the Hardy report is more comprehensive and accurate than the FWS study, conducted by BIO/WEST.

The FWS report estimated there were 154,000 Virgin spinedace in the area. The Hardy report concluded populations exceeded 377,000 fish in the same area, including 188,000 fish it says BIO/WEST failed to count in the Upper Virgin River.

Harris said the discrepancy between reports can be accounted for by the time period each was conducted as well as the season.

"If you go out and sample adult fish, you will come up with much different numbers than if you sample offspring which have a very high mortality rate," he said. "You can study the area at varying times and come out with extremely different numbers."

The FWS report gave several reasons why the spinedace should be listed as threatened or endangered. Each reason is challenged by the district.

"What we are most concerned with is the condition of the habitat which is deteriorating," Harris said.

Washington County is already struggling with a proposed habitat conservation plan for the threatened desert tortoise which developers say could cost the county millions of dollars.