A tiny, unsung fish that lives only in Oregon's Willamette Valley is suddenly in the limelight. The Oregon chub is a minnow that was listed as endangered more than 20 years ago. But it’s on the rebound. Three years ago, the species was upgraded to threatened status. Officials are now petitioning to make Oregon chub the first fish ever to be recovered and removed from the endangered species list.
Auer: "Hank! Come."
John Auer and his dog Hank are in the middle of his family's 900-acre farm near Monmouth.
After strapping on some waders, Auer pushes through thick tangles of grass and sinks into brown, swampy water.
Auer: "Home base for chub is inside here."
On about 30 acres of the farm, Auer has teamed up with wildlife managers to expand the marshlands around Jont Creek.
They removed soil and replaced some invasive reed canary grass with native plants. Auer says the idea was to improve habitat for salmon, steelhead and waterfowl.
Auer: "I go duck hunting out here twice a year, maybe. The rest of the time it's theirs. They can have it."
But in the process of sampling the fish in the new habitat, a biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife found many other lesser-known species.
Auer: "He just pulled these little crawdad traps up, and he caught like 250 fish – little fish of all different kinds that I didn't even know were in here."
In a pond behind a beaver dam, the traps revealed dozens of a native minnow called Oregon chub. This little fish – which grows no more than three inches long – has been on the endangered species list since 1993.
Auer: "He told me they were a threatened species. I was taken aback. I had no idea they would be here or that there even was that kind of fish."
Brian Bangs is the biologist who found the chub on Auer's property. He's been working to recover the species since 2005 – wading into Willamette Valley muck to look for them and at times getting stuck in the process. He says the fish can be a bit underwhelming in appearance.
Bangs: "Yeah, they don't look like much, but they're representative of a lot of the habitat we used to have here in the valley – the swampy, lowland habitat that was prevalent in the bottom of the valley before colonization and industrialization."
Most people don't know about Oregon chub. They're certainly not a fish anglers try to catch. Though they do get eaten by a lot of game fish. And that was part of the problem.
Bangs: "Bass, bluegill, crappie, bullhead. These were brought rover and introduced as sport fish. Oregon chub hide in vegetation, and this is the same spot where a lot of predators are hunting."
Biologists came up with a simple plan to keep the invasive fish from eating the minnows to the point of extinction: They introduced chub to predator-free ponds, where their numbers could grow.
That helped with another problem chub faced, which was the loss of ponds and sloughs. Bangs says the construction of dikes and dams to control flooding eliminated a lot of the marshlands chub like to call home.
Bangs: "Chub like silty, muddy substrates – the kind of places where you say ‘I'm not drinking that water.’"
Project leader Paul Scheerer has been working to recover chub since they were first listed. He says in a way, the fact that chub keep a low profile has helped them recover. It was painless for many landowners to add chub ponds without changing their farm forest operations.
Scheerer: "The fact that they're small and don't have a lot of effect on people made our job a little bit easier because we could do a lot of our work under the radar screen."
Meanwhile, efforts to improve salmon and steelhead habitat by allowing more water flows through dams on the Willamette River have also been helped the lesser-known chub.
When the fish were listed as endangered, biologists could account for less than 1,000 Oregon chub. Now, there are around 160,000 of them. A large chunk of their new habitat is on private land like Auer's family farm.
Scheerer: "We have a little fish that most people didn't know about, few people care about and we've managed to recover them in a working landscape. So, it's a demonstration that it can be done."
Paul Henson is the state supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon. He says everyone agrees these little fish no longer needs endangered species protection.
Henson: "Oregon chub are so clearly recovered now. I have not heard of anyone disagreeing with the decision here. I'd say it's pretty much a consensus that the time is right."
That's a big deal because while other fish have been removed from the endangered species list. It hasn't been because their populations rebounded.
Take the long jaw cisco, blue pike and tecopa pupfish. They all came off the list – because they went extinct.
Henson: “Overall in the US we have 1400 species listed: Fish, plants, birds, insects. And there’s not yet been a fish proposed for delisting due to recovery.”
A thriving population of Oregon chub isn't just good news for the future of these minnows. It's also one more step in making the Willamette Valley a healthier place for the native birds, reptiles and other fish that live in the same swamps -- and rely on the Oregon chub as part of their food chain.
That’s why John Auer says he’d be happy to add another chub pond on his family farm – whether the fish are endangered or not.
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