JEFFERSON, Ore. (CN) – Sun streamed through bare willow branches lining the North Santiam River as a great blue heron plucked a pike minnow from the shallow edge. Clumps of gelatinous salamander egg masses shone like jewels in the mud. Two wintering bald eagles soared overhead. And the tiny Oregon chub thrived in the warm, shallow water.
“At first we thought we’d make the right habitat, then recolonize the habitat. But before we could recolonize, they showed up. Kind of like, if you make it, they will come,” said Brian Bangs, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Oregon Chub is the first fish ever to be removed from the Endangered Species List due to resurgence in numbers. The only other fish removed from the list were taken off because they became extinct.
It took a 23-year campaign to revive flagging populations of the Oregon chub, a small minnow that lives only in the network of rivers, streams and wetlands of the Willamette River Valley, Oregon’s largest watershed, which covers 11,500 square miles.
The Willamette River runs from crystalline Waldo Lake high in the Cascade Mountains almost 187 miles north, to the Columbia River.
The little fish was added to the Endangered Species List in 1993, with fewer than 1,000 left. When the environment recovered, so did the chub, roaring back to an estimated 140,000 in 80 fish populations around the Valley.
The chub’s recovery depended on a special combination of factors, including a buy-in from farmers and residents of the Willamette Valley, who, with some diplomacy from the state biologists, became strong supporters of the program.
It is seen as an object lesson on how the Endangered Species Act can help stem the tide of extinctions in the nation.
Roughly 60 percent of the chub’s habitat is on private land, Bangs estimates.
To combat fears about environmental rules, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drafted a safe-harbor agreement that held landowners harmless for loss of the chub on their property, so long as they followed a handful of basic guidelines, such as not adding non-native fish to ponds and streams on their property, not dumping chemicals or draining ponds.
It was important to John Auer, a 58-year-old financial adviser who runs the 900-acre farm outside Monmouth, Ore., that his parents bought in 1947. The old white farmhouse where Auer was born still stands at the end of a long driveway.
Jont Creek winds through the edge of Auer’s property, turning 30 acres of the farm into a wetland ecosystem. Auer grew up hunting ducks and fishing cutthroat trout on the property. He remembers helping his father dynamite beaver dams in the swamp to clear the way for crops.
“We’d blow the dams every spring,” Auer said. “Drain the swamp and plant, then let the beavers dam again every fall.”
These days, Auer leases about 350 acres of his property to other farmers for perennial rye grass, oats, squash and green beans. He said he was open to a restoration project because he hasn’t farmed the wetland area for decades.
“They told me the chub was an endangered species and I said, ‘Uh oh,'” Auer said. “Brian came down to do some samples, and I didn’t really think he’d find the chub in there. But he did. When he found it, I said, ‘Well, now what have I done to myself?’ But I looked at the location where the wetland was and I thought, that’s not an area we’re ever going to farm. Let’s go for it. I ended up even signing the safe-harbor agreement.”
Bangs said that kind of evolving relationship was a cornerstone of the campaign to revive the Oregon chub.
“There’s a lot of fear about the Endangered Species Act right now,” Bangs said. “We really worked with people to say, we’re not trying to screw you up or catch you in some violation. All we care about is making sure that this little minnow doesn’t blink over the edge of existence.”
Bangs and fellow researcher Paul Sheerer said their success also stemmed from a multi-agency focus on restoring the chub’s swamp ecosystem as a whole, in addition to reintroducing the fish to areas where it had disappeared.
Their effort was helped by the Northwest environment, where there is plenty of water. The revival of the Oregon Chub contrasts with the struggle to improve the habitat for California’s Delta smelt, another tiny West Coast minnow that lives in a similar region: the estuaries, sloughs and streams between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada, and feed into San Francisco Bay.
In contrast to Oregon, California has been caught in the grip of a multiyear drought that has affected much of the Western United States. The Delta smelt is caught between the conflicting interests in pursuit of the limited supply of water, agriculture and the environment.
Four hundred twenty-nine species of fish are listed as endangered or threatened, including white sturgeon, Columbia River salmon and the Delta smelt.
Doug Obegi, a staff attorney with Natural Resources Defense Counsel’s water program, said the successful delisting of the Oregon chub lends hope to efforts California’s similarly small inhabitants of small streams and shallow, warm waters.
“The delisting provides some optimism that California’s native salmon and other endangered fisheries also can recover, if we restore our rivers and Bay-Delta estuary to provide sufficient water flows and restored habitat,” Obegi said by email.
The story of the Oregon Chub is one victory against a string of defeats for wildlife biologists. While it was removed from the Endangered Species List because of its recovery, four fish had been removed from the list because they had become extinct.
The Tecopa pupfish, Cisco longjaw, blue pike and the Amistad gambusia are no more.
Scientists say our planet is undergoing its sixth major extinction in the past half-billion years. Extinction is natural phenomenon that normally occurs at a rate of one to five species per year.
Worldwide, plant and animal species are becoming extinct at a rate 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than that normal rate. Dozens of species go extinct every day, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the chub’s story illustrated the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act.
“The endangered species list is constantly being criticized for being a Hotel California where species go and never come back. This shows that with adequate funding they do recover,” Curry said.
Oregon’s supply of water, as a grand strategy of returning its flow to that of an earlier time, was critical to the recovery.
“Biologists have a tendency to take a species approach and say, how can we restore this species?” Bangs said. “We focused on restoring normal ecological processes that the Willamette Valley is known for. And what’s the main one it’s known for? Flooding.”
Today the Willamette River, which runs through the heart of Portland and is the dividing line between the city’s east and west sides, is contained by concrete banks within the city, and spanned by 10 bridges in as many miles.
A century ago, the river was 1 to 2 miles wide. It snaked through the Valley, expanding and contracting as it flooded.
“The original Willamette was a crazy, braided channel, not like today,” Bangs said.
That changed when the Army Corps of Engineers built dozens of dams and farmers drained the spongy wetlands that chub love. People made the river easier to navigate by boat, safer to live around and a source of hydroelectric energy.
And as more European settlers moved West, they brought along the fish they liked to catch back East – mainly bass and bluegill, which became the Oregon chub’s voracious new predators.
Changing the Willamette to suit humans’ needs had unintended consequences for the fish and other creatures that call the river home.
Bangs said that reducing flooding may have been safer for settlers, but it didn’t help the valley ecology.
“What used to be a 10-year magnitude flood is now a 100-year flood,” Bangs said. “And that’s bad for native fish. Floods rejuvenate these ecosystems.”
In 2010, Bangs and Sheerer worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to change the flow of Oregon reservoirs to better imitate natural water flow.
Historically, the Corps of Engineers managed reservoirs around the Willamette by releasing a slow, steady flow of water into rivers and streams below. That created conditions that favored non-native fish.
“We worked with the Corps to release pulses of water that look like a flood and ecologically act like a flood,” Bangs said. “A lot of the non-native fish don’t know how to react to flood pulses. They just stay in the middle of the channel and get flushed down river. The native fish know to kind of hunker down and hide until the flush is over. And the chub have responded wonderfully.”
Bangs said this focus on the ecosystem has benefited myriad creatures. Great blue herons, river otters, native frogs and salamanders all win.
“People wonder why this tiny little minnow matters, but if you make the food base, starting at the bottom of the food chain, everything comes back,” Bangs said. “Now people in these areas say, ‘We’ve never seen a river otter here, we’ve never seen herons here.’ And that’s the effect of starting at the bottom.”
Bangs said the team’s efforts would have a big effect in the wetlands of the Willamette Valley.
“It’s going to keep the other species that are here off the Endangered Species List,” Bangs said.
“When you have a habitat that is functional for chub, it’s functional for the entire ecosystem,” Scheerer added.
There’s another benefit. Oregon Chub eat insect larvae, especially mosquito larvae.
“When I go to swamps where chub are, I don’t have to worry about mosquitoes at all,” Bangs said, standing hip deep in the North Santiam.
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