The little fish that could

An endangered Oregon minnow recovers, while many native fish still struggle.

  • Oregon chub, no longer than an adult human's finger, are the first fish species to be removed from the endangered species list.

    Dave Herasimtschuk © Freshwaters Illustrated courtesy USFWS

By most measures, the Oregon chub is unremarkable, with its muddy green back, silver flanks and milky belly. Plus, it's a minnow, the kind of fish people value primarily as bait for bigger, tastier species. Fully grown, it's about the size of an index finger.

But size isn't everything. The spotted owl of fish – the endangered Delta smelt – is also small and drab, yet stirs great drama. In 2009, during a drought in California's San Joaquin Valley, its protection was blamed for denying farmers badly needed irrigation water, inspiring protests that Fox News' Sean Hannity broadcast live from the dusty fields. "What we have today is a manmade drought," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., scoffed. "We're taking the breadbasket of the world and starving it of water to save little fish." Lawsuits to leave more water in the Rio Grande for its struggling silvery minnow have bred similar animosity between New Mexican farmers and environmentalists.

In this context, the Oregon chub is remarkable both for what it is and what it is not: an uncharismatic fish whose protection has inspired neither contempt nor endless litigation. It is, apparently, a winning combination. On Feb. 4, after 21 years on the endangered species list, it became the very first imperiled fish to be deemed recovered and proposed for removal from the list.

Extinction happens, a fact we've lately had occasion to remember. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a 29-year-old passenger pigeon named Martha, the last of a species that was once billions strong. Passenger pigeons, hunted to functional extinction in just a few decades, became a grim lesson in how easily humans could nuke even abundant animals. Later, when bald eagles and whooping cranes nose-dived, the Endangered Species Act was created to prevent more disappearances.

When it passed Congress, in December 1973, Americans were surprisingly sure that society should go to great lengths to preserve plants and animals. There were only four dissenting votes. Five years later, the Supreme Court affirmed that the well-being of the snail darter – another tiny fish – was more important than the completion of a major dam in Tennessee. The clear intent of the law was to save both lovable and unlovable species, the justices ruled, "whatever the cost."

That sentiment tempered over time because there usually is a cost. Many commentators say the law is now experiencing a "midlife crisis." House Republicans routinely try to undermine it, and critics question its effectiveness, since only 2 percent of listed species have been fully recovered.

Fish have it particularly hard: There are 156 species on the endangered list, versus 86 mammals, 96 birds, 36 reptiles and 29 amphibians. "Freshwater habitats are the most endangered worldwide," explains California native fish expert Peter Moyle. Pesticides, road smut and debris eroded from burnt or cut forests all wash into streams: "They receive everything bad that goes on in the landscape."

Many listed fish are Western natives that have declined because of dams and other habitat alterations and the introduction of predatory non-native species. And, of course, fish need water. In the arid West, they have to compete for it with people. They usually lose.

All of these problems are hard to fix – so hard that some fish are likely to be forever "conservation dependent," incapable of surviving without human help. Still, says Moyle, that doesn't mean the Endangered Species Act has failed native fish: "There are a lot of fish that would not be around (at all) today if it was not for the ESA," including most Colorado River species.

So how did the Oregon chub beat the odds? Endemic to the Willamette Valley, it evolved in braided rivers with wide floodplains and plenty of slack water. The minnow declined as people straightened and narrowed the river channel, adding dams and flood-control projects in the '50s and '60s, and replacing "swampy and nasty" backwaters with livable, farmable space, explains Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Bangs, who took the reins of the rescue effort from veteran chub guardian Paul Scheerer in 2008. There was also the introduction of predatory foreigners like largemouth bass. By the early '90s, biologists believed Oregon chub numbered fewer than 1,000.

But the chub had a few things going for it that many fish don't. It's a prolific breeder. And its recovery depended on numerous, but small, habitat restoration projects, rather than hard-to-win concessions from the Willamette's major economic forces – farmers taking less irrigation water, hydropower dams significantly changing how they operate, or timber companies cutting fewer trees.

Its recovery also depended on private landowners, who proved remarkably cooperative. Landowners entered what are called "safe harbor" agreements, pledging not to harm chub by draining sloughs and ponds or treating them with chemicals, or by introducing non-native fish. In exchange, they won't be held liable for any declines of fish or face additional regulation. Farm Bill money and other public funds helped support habitat improvements for participants. One landowner and avid hunter, recalls Bangs, thought, "We can create a chub pond. I'll have more duck habitat I can hunt, and you have a great pond for your fish."

Still, there remains the inevitable question: What good is this little minnow? Bangs notes that where there are chub there are not mosquitoes, and that chub habitat also welcomes herons, ducks and young salmon. But his own enthusiasm for chub is less pragmatic, recalling, in a way, the unambiguous idealism behind the law that prevented its extinction: That creatures great and small are worth saving. Just because. A Willamette Valley native, Bangs "geeks out" about the same swampy, nasty places that chub love. "Every fish around here can be found somewhere else except chub," he raves. "This is our fish!"

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