By Ben Ikenson

Champepadan Creek meanders through the rolling grasslands of southwestern Minnesota. Like many other area streams that eventually feed the Missouri River, the creek's once- clean waters have been compromised by corn and soybean agriculture – as evidenced by dramatic population declines of Topeka shiner.

Listed as endangered in 1998, the minnow with brilliant red fins once ranged throughout much of the Upper Midwest. From 2010 to 2013, the fish declined markedly in state surveys, dropping from a presence at 76 percent of sites to 30 percent. Today, its habitat continues to be degraded by stream bank erosion, excessive sedimentation and agriculture-related pollutants.

“Especially in recent years, these fish have really declined,” says Scott Ralston. “They like oxbows that protect them from predators and provide good breeding areas. But most of these oxbows have become filled in with sediment and disconnected from the main channel, so they either don't hold water anymore or the fish can't get in or out of them.”

Ralston is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service private lands biologist at Windom Wetland Management District, which manages 75 federal waterfowl production areas, oversees 1,000 refuge acres and conserves 4,000 acres of privately owned wetland and grassland habitat via easements in 12 counties.

Ralston has been working with landowners through the Cooperative Recovery Initiative (CRI) on habitat restoration projects designed first to stabilize the Topeka shiner population from further decline and then rebuild it to pre-listing numbers. The CRI awarded more than $1 million to Topeka shiner recovery under the auspices of the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

“Unlike many [other CRI projects], which were targeting specific work on refuge land, we are targeting a landscape[-scale] approach spanning public and private land covering an area of over 900 river miles,” Ralston says.

Restoration on one 160-acre farm exemplifies the work. There, biologists selected three oxbows for renovation. “They'll be dug out down to the same depth as the adjacent stream channel, clearing out nearly five feet of sediment and keeping them full year-round through groundwater connections. Water will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter so the ponds don't freeze solid and fish have stable habitat,” Ralston explains.

The Service has developed partnerships with state, county and private landowners, leveraging their time, expertise and funding to share the workload and allow more Topeka shiner- related projects than one entity could do alone. There are 18 major Topeka shiner habitat enhancement projects within the wetland management district. They include more than two dozen oxbow restoration efforts, three dam removals that would reconnect nearly 50 miles of stream habitat, numerous stream bank stabilization efforts, a 150-acre easement acquisition, and a monitoring program. All are planned within two years and involve numerous partners, including the Service's Twin Cities Ecological Services Office.

“These types of projects are what our Partners Program is all about,” says Windom Wetland Management District manager Todd Luke. “In this part of the country especially, most of the land is privately owned for agricultural production, so it is imperative to work with landowners through partnerships. While many farmers are not motivated by endangered species recovery, they do care about things like stream bank restoration because it preserves their farm land. Other landowners like the idea of improving sport fisheries and attracting waterfowl.

“The fact is,” he continues, “this cooperative effort yields so many benefits, including enhanced habitat for rare state species such as Blanding's turtle, Plains topminnow and Blanchard's cricket frog, as well as flood reduction and water quality improvement.”

Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based freelance writer.