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Male Topeka shiner. Photo by Kraig McPeek/USFWS.

Male Topeka shiner. Photo by Kraig McPeek/USFWS.

A Little Fish with Big Influence:
Topeka Shiner Cooperative Recovery in Southwest Minnesota

Staff from a number of Service programs, including Windom Wetland Management District, Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office and La Crosse Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, teamed up to benefit the endangered Topeka shiner, a small minnow inhabiting prairie streams in the Midwest and primarily found in the headwaters of the Missouri River. The team recently completed baseline monitoring for a multi-year habitat restoration project in southwest Minnesota.

Once abundant in the central United States, the Topeka shiner was federally listed as endangered in 1998 because of a dramatic decline in both occurrence and abundance throughout its range, largely due to stream alterations from human and climate impacts (e.g., groundwater alteration, agricultural practices, etc.). Drained wetlands that once had a connection to streams and rivers no longer provide potential off-channel habitat for fish. Wetlands and upland groundwater infiltration can no longer provide storage and flood water buffering. The result is increased base flow and higher intensity of peak flows. Drainage also often carries higher levels of nitrates, sediment and pesticides.

The long-term goal of this project is to stabilize the Minnesota population of the Topeka shiner to levels at or before the time of its listing in 1998, prior to recent declines. This will be achieved by recreating and restoring backwater and off-channel habitats that have been critical to the health of Topeka shiner and other headwaters organisms. Strategies that Service partners will implement as part of this project include:

  • Restoration of 25 off-channel/oxbow pools through excavation of excess sediment and reconnection with groundwater system and the main channel.
  • Improved aquatic connectivity by removing two dams, providing improved connectivity to approximately 48 miles of critical habitat.
  • Reduced sediment loading and streambank degradation through stabilization.
  • Protection of sensitive habitat through easement or fee title acquisition as part of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, as well as work with other state and federal partners for other easement and fee acquisition programs.
  • Continued water quality improvement and mitigation of agriculture runoff through grassland and wetland restoration and protection in the upper watershed outside of the stream channels using the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

Using this strategy, and through an intensive monitoring program, we expect to achieve a measurable increase in Topeka shiner presence and abundance within 5 years at sites where restoration activities have been completed. Our goal is to see at least 70 percent presence of Topeka shiner in these locations with a contribution of at least 50 percent of the individuals coming from the restored off-channel habitat.

The Topeka shiner can be considered a “canary in the coal mine” regarding the health of headwater systems. By focusing efforts on the recovery of this small minnow, the Service can improve conditions for all aquatic organisms in these headwater environments. As such, we are focusing on restoring the headwater environment as a starting point for improvement of the entire river system downstream.

By Nicholas Utrup
Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office

Last updated: June 8, 2020