A Fishy Success Story

Photo courtesy of USFWS

Photo courtesy of USFWS

By Rebecca Deatsman

Last fall I spent three days canoeing the Willamette River in western Oregon with a group of high school students. It’s a beautiful waterway, lined with state parks, and if your only experience of the region was floating down the river you might not guess that over 2 million people, 70 percent of Oregon’s total population, live in this watershed. There are 371 dams in the Willamette River basin, intensive agriculture, and thriving cities. This may sound like an unlikely setting for an endangered species success story, but this spring, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The Oregon Chub is a small, ordinary-looking fish, typically less than four inches long. It’s endemic to the Willamette River watershed, meaning it’s found nowhere else in the world. For centuries, these small fish lived in slow-moving side channels and vegetation-filled beaver ponds throughout the Willamette basin, munching on tiny aquatic invertebrates like mosquito larvae and generally not attracting much attention. However, as the river was controlled and channeled and dammed, the lazy wetlands where chubs hung out were gradually replaced by towns and farms, and their populations began to decline.

The story of their listing and eventual recovery shows how slowly the endangered species system in the U.S. works. It was first declared to be a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1982. In 1990, a professor from Oregon State University formally petitioned for it to be listed, providing data on its decline, and not until 1993 did it officially become a federally-designated endangered species. Once that was done, it took a further five years (until 1998) for a recovery plan to be written up, and critical habitat for the chub was not designated until 2010. At the federal level, the wheels of endangered species conservation turn very slowly.

However, once things finally got going, the Oregon Chub had several things going for it: it was small and uncontroversial (unlike, for example, wolves) and conserving its habitat didn’t require any major sacrifices by industries like timber and agriculture. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which manages a number of dams on the Willamette) as well as private landowners along the river system to restore and protect pockets of habitat where the fish could thrive. It was downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” in 2010, and finally, this spring, though it will continue to be monitored, the Oregon Chub became the first fish ever to be completely removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

In the Willamette River Basin, timber, agriculture, urban areas, and wildlife all coexist within a limited area. Managing places like this will always be challenging, but the success story of the Oregon Chub provides reason for hope.

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