Farmers help tiny fish come back
By Eric Mortenson
The Oregon chub, a 3-inch fish that lives exclusively in the backwaters of the Willamette River system, has recovered to the point that it’s about to become the first fish to be removed from the federal endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will propose that Oregon chub be delisted. When the fish was listed as endangered in 1993, the population had declined to fewer than 1,000 fish in eight known locations. A 2013 survey estimated the chub population at approximately 160,000 fish in 83 locations.
Oregon chub historically inhabited slow-moving sloughs, bogs and beaver ponds along the Willamette. It lost habitat as the backwater areas were drained, rechanneled or developed, however, and competition from non-native fish combined to nearly wipe them out.
Oregon Chub Project leader Paul Scheerer said farmers were critical partners in the comeback effort.
“First of all they gave us access, which was important to find the (chub) populations,” said Scheerer, who works for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. Many of the farmland owners are enrolled in conservation programs under the Farm Bill, and have worked to restore wetlands on marginal land in exchange for payment, he said.
“When you have a wetland that holds water year round, we were able to reintroduce chubs on suitable habitat on farmland,” Scheerer said. Of the 21 locations in the Willamette system where chubs were reintroduced, 12 were on private property, he said.
Farmers and other private landowners generally support fish and wildlife restoration efforts and in this case haven’t been “scared away” by the complications of the federal endangered species process, Scheerer said.
“It’s a neat story,” said Brian Bangs, an ODFW fish biologist and assistant project leader.
Bangs said he understands the concerns farmers and other rural landowners have about regulatory agencies. “You prickle up a little bit when you hear Endangered Species Act — what are they going to do on my property?” he said. “It’s been important to be extremely honest with landowners.”
The use of “safe harbor” agreements was important in gaining cooperation in the recovery effort, Bangs said. Under such agreements, landowners with chubs on their property were held harmless if they followed simple management practices: Don’t de-water habitat, don’t introduce non-native fish and don’t directly apply chemicals into waterways. Farmers can opt out if they choose, Bangs said.
As a result, chubs are thriving 10 feet from grazing cattle, he said, and within a stone’s throw of hazelnut trees. “We have shown the way how endangered species work should go,” Bangs said. “It’s a collaborative, give and take, living-working relationship.”
In a prepared statement, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called the USFW’s delisting action a “huge compliment to Oregonians and our history of conservation leadership.” He credited the collaboration of landowners, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations.