A Tale of Two Fishes

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove federal protection from the speckled dace, an Oregon minnow, which has recovered, but add the Barrens topminnow, of Tennessee, to the endangered species list.

The Foskett speckled dace.

The Foskett speckled dace is a small fish found only in southeastern Oregon’s Great Basin. The dace, a type of minnow, was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1985 due to its limited range, isolated small populations, and habitat loss. Fish and Wildlife developed a recovery plan for the fish, as required by the Act, and worked with state and federal agencies to rebuild the species.

“We attribute this impressive accomplishment to our partners who have worked so hard on the recovery of the dace,” said Robyn Thorson, Pacific Region director for Fish and Wildlife. “This news builds on other recent successes, including two Oregon fishes that were delisted due to recovery, the Oregon chub and the Modoc sucker. These recoveries of native Oregon wildlife are great examples of how our longstanding commitment to working with local and state partners is paying off.”

Environmental groups say the Endangered Species Act works because 99 percent of listed species have not gone extinct, but congressional Republicans have proposed numerous bills aimed at gutting the Act, claiming that it was never intended to sustain species under federal protection forever.

However, when a listed species is removed from the list of protected species because it has fully recovered, that is something both sides can celebrate.

“The Endangered Species Act saved Oregon’s unique Foskett speckled dace just like it saved the bald eagle, gray whale and hundreds of other species across the country,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center of Biological Diversity conservation group said.

“If congressional Republicans truly wanted the Endangered Species Act to work better, they would provide adequate funding for species recovery. But even with funding way below what is needed, the Act is working, and this proposal to remove protection from the Foskett speckled dace is proof.”

Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher agreed, saying: “It’s exciting to see our efforts over the past few decades paying off in a real recovery for this rare and unique endemic species. Effective partnerships with organizations like BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and the Service are what make success stories like this happen.”

The Barrens topminnow.

Every recovery offers hope for species still awaiting protection. The Barrens topminnow in Tennessee has been struggling for decades, and even aggressive conservation work involving many partners has not been able to stop its decline.

“The Barrens topminnow was first proposed for Endangered Species Act protection more than 40 years ago and this small fish now finds itself on the very brink of extinction,” Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist Tierra Curry told Courthouse News. “Hopefully, today’s proposal will be the turning point that keeps it from being lost forever.”

The topminnow, which is not a minnow, survives in only a few creeks and springs. The biggest threat to its survival is the mosquitofish, a non-native invasive fish that was indiscriminately introduced by mosquito control agencies in many parts of the country in the mistaken belief they are an effective control agent for mosquitoes. But these highly aggressive fish attack other fish and eat eggs and larvae, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“The 1977 proposed listing was never finalized and was withdrawn in 1980 under a rule that said the agency only had two years to finalize proposed listings. Then in 1982 they added it to the candidate list instead of reproposing it,” Curry said.

After Fish and Wildlife failed to follow through on listing the topminnow, it sought help from conservation partners. They managed to breed stock for reintroduction and improve habitat, but the fish is still in decline.

“There has already been a good deal of successful conservation work on the Barrens topminnow by many partners, including the Barrens Topminnow Working Group, Conservation Fisheries Inc., and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga,” said Leopoldo Miranda, assistant regional director for Fish and Wildlife’s Ecological Services program in the Southeast Region. “Extending protected status is a signal that more work is needed, and we look forward to cooperating with the many organizations and people trying to help this fish.”

Curry agreed. “This little fish is in very big trouble and in this particular situation the topminnow would likely already be extinct if not for the conservation efforts that have already been made. It’s going to take all hands on deck to save this species,” she said.

Fish and Wildlife is accepting public comments on both actions until March 5.

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