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Oregon chub recovery: The power of partnerships

By Paul Scheerer
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist

 Who knew that an inconspicuous minnow that inhabits the backwaters of the Willamette Valley could bring so many people together?

The collective effort by a very strong public-private partnership in the Willamette Valley has helped spur recovery of the Oregon chub. Recent reports show that the chub, which is listed as threatened, appears to have met the criteria to be considered for removal from the Endangered Species List.

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A pair of Oregon chub swim at Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Rick Swart, ODFW

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which turned 40 years old last month, sets a high standard to prevent extinction and recover species to be self-sustainable.

Oregon chub are small floodplain minnows that live in sloughs, swamps, beaver ponds, and low-gradient tributaries.  These off-channel habitats were dramatically reduced by the construction of Willamette River flood control dams, channelization of the river for navigation, the draining of wetlands for agriculture and development, and are prime habitats for nonnative game fish, such as bass and bluegill, which prey on the species.  Due to these threats, this fish was listed as endangered in 1993, when only eight populations totaling fewer than 1,000 fish were known to exist.  Now, 21 years later, there are over 80 populations and more than 150,000 fish. 

 

This success is a remarkable story of cooperation between landowners, non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies that got behind the effort decades ago to ensure the species would not become extinct.  This partnership includes Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon State Parks, Oregon Department of Transportation, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, local municipalities, numerous private landowners, watershed councils, the McKenzie River Trust, and others.  In contrast to high profile species such as the Pacific salmon or the grey wolf, most of the recovery activities have occurred under the radar screen with little impact to the local communities. 

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Paul Scheerer (right) and Brian Bangs, biologists for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, have worked together to save the Oregon chub. Photo by ODFW

I have devoted 22 years of my professional life to recovering Oregon chub populations in the Willamette Valley.  I was joined in 2005 by Brian Bangs, who has enthusiastically led on-the-ground efforts for the past six years.  We’ve led the charge by conducting research and monitoring, promoting habitat protection and improvements, and conducting reintroductions of the fish into unoccupied habitats.  

We’ve worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to manage flows and temperatures to benefit native fish including Oregon chub, coordinating with the McKenzie River Trust to identify high quality habitats for land acquisition, working with the Middle Fork Willamette, Santiam, and Long Tom Watershed Councils to identify private landowners who were willing to enhance and protect chub habitats, and coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Oregon Parks and Recreation and Oregon Department of Transportation to protect, enhance, and create habitat on lands that they manage. 

Through extensive surveys at more than 1,000 locations in the basin, our team has discovered many previously undocumented populations.  Historical records of the species’ occurrence were rare, as no targeted surveys occurred until the 1980s.  This effort was, at times, like finding a needle in a haystack, but persistence has paid its rewards. 

In addition, recovery has benefitted from the introduction of Oregon chub into suitable, unoccupied habitats.  There have been 21 introductions to date.  These help reduce the threat of extinction by expanding the species range and providing backup populations that can be used in the event of loss of local populations.  Many of the introductions have occurred on private lands.  Coordinated efforts with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s and ODFW’s private lands biologists have helped to identify properties and willing landowners and to acquire funding under various Farm Bill programs, like the Wetland Reserve Program, to re-create high quality habitat that has been lost over the years.

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This is ideal Oregon chub habitat at a property owned by the McKenzie River Trust. Photo by ODFW

Recovery is the goal of the ESA.  Hopefully, we’ll soon reach that goal with the Oregon chub.

Oregon chub has benefitted from the protections afforded by the ESA, as have countless other species of fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals that also depend on these off-channel habitats.  However, the status of this species and others like it depends on a concerted community effort to understand, protect, and restore the natural river processes that these species require for continued survival. 

This community effort is what made Oregon chub recovery possible.

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