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The Topeka Shiner in Iowa: A True Example of Strategic Habitat Conservation
by Aleshia Kenney
Photo Credit: USFWS
What started out as just an idea with a few skeptical landowners in the early 2000s has now turned into a true success story. Blending the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program with endangered species habitat restorations demonstrates true Strategic Habitat Conservation–especially when it works as well as it did for the Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka) in Iowa.
The Topeka shiner, a small minnow listed as federally endangered in 1998, was once found in many streams and rivers throughout Iowa. Habitat destruction, sedimentation, and changes in water quality have caused the species to decline. The species is now restricted to the North Raccoon River and its tributaries, with smaller populations in the Boone, Rock and Little Rock rivers.
These tiny minnows prefer quiet, open pools of small prairie streams. Back when Iowa was covered in prairie, these streams used to naturally meander, creating cut-offs of the outside loops of the main stream. These loops became U-shaped ponds known as oxbows, which reconnected to the stream during high water. Oxbows provided the perfect quiet, pool-like habitat that Topeka shiners prefer. Over time, these naturally meandering prairie streams have been straightened and channelized, halting the creation of oxbows, along with any natural pools found within the stream. The few remaining oxbows that do remain have filled with sediment and only hold water during part of the year. Topeka shiners that end up in these oxbows during spring flood events do not survive through summer once the oxbows dry up.
In 2000 the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, began reaching out to private landowners who owned property with potentially restorable habitat for the Topeka shiner. Initially, biologists were met with a lot of adversity, but a few conservation-minded landowners decided to give oxbow restoration a try. Restoration consisted of digging out the sedimentation that had occurred in the oxbow, taking the depth back down to where the original stream used to flow, allowing the oxbow to hold water year round. To date the Partners Program -- with support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy -- has restored 40 oxbows in the North Raccoon River watershed and one in the Boone River watershed. These projects have had outstanding results, and more restoration projects for both watersheds are planned for 2012. Many of the restored oxbows now support Topeka shiner populations, and reproduction of Topeka shiners has been documented in restored oxbows. In 2009, researchers with the Service found 354 Topeka shiners in one restored oxbow alone. A number of neighboring landowners have expressed interest in restoring habitat for the Topeka shiner on their properties after learning of the success of these restoration projects.
Photo Credit: USFWS
The benefits of these oxbow restoration projects do not just end with the Topeka shiner, as these wetlands support other species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Wetlands also provide water quality benefits and will improve water quality in these watersheds which are primarily agricultural.
Aleshia Kenney, a biologist with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Iowa, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 309-757-5800 ext. 218.
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