GREEN CASTLE, Mo. — Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Fisheries Biologist Darren Thornhill carefully poured his bucket of hatchery-reared Topeka shiners into the clear stream. Hope filled his eyes and a small cheer emerged from the gathered group of biologists, as the endangered minnow quickly darted off in its new home.
On Oct. 20, MDC released approximately 9,500 Topeka shiners in several ponds and streams within Union Ridge Conservation Area (CA), including two creeks in the Spring Creek Ranch Natural Area. Those released were raised at the MDC Lost Valley Fish Hatchery in Warsaw.
Around 50 orange spotted sunfish were also stocked in the ponds as a “spawning associate.” Topeka shiners will lay eggs in an active sunfish nest, and sunfish fanning and guarding the eggs helps the hatch.
According to MDC Resource Scientist Doug Novinger, this is the first stocking of Topeka shiners in northeast Missouri.
“Last year two experimental populations were released in the northwest part of the state,” said Novinger. “So this is the third population of this kind established.”
Topeka shiners are a small minnow, with an olive-yellow back, dark-edged scales and silvery-white sides and belly. A dark stripe runs along the fish’s sides and extends to the head, and a distinctive v-shaped spot adorns the base of the tail. Breeding males have orange-red fins and orange-tinted heads and bodies. They can grow up to three inches in length.
Once common in such waters as found at Union Ridge CA, Topeka shiners’ numbers are in sharp decline for reasons biologists don’t fully understand, though they know most native prairie is gone and the landscape is greatly changed by development and agriculture.
“This is an area that the Topeka shiner had historically thrived in,” said Thornhill. “We are just restoring what should naturally be here.”
According to Novinger, the most important reason MDC is stocking the Topeka shiner is because they are part of Missouri’s natural heritage.
“In the same way that we look at the landscape and think about what makes Missouri, Missouri, the Topeka shiner is a former prairie species that occurred throughout the northern half of the state. They are an important part of this environment,” Novinger said. “Bringing them back restores a piece of the puzzle.”
Topeka shiners are on the state’s endangered species list, but also federally endangered due to declines in other states. However, the fish being stocked within Union Ridge CA have a special designation and are considered non-essential, experimental populations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The fish we released are not considered endangered species, as far as the endangered species act is concerned,” Novinger said. “There will be no restrictions or regulations that prevent property owners from engaging in otherwise lawful activities in areas where they are released; so landowners don’t need to fear having an endangered species in the streams in their area.”
After just one year, the fish stocked in northwest Missouri are still there. They were able to survive the winter and even expanded their range. Based on those preliminary results, Novinger and Thornhill have high hopes for success for this group of fish.
“It’s difficult to predict how successful this effort will be,” Novinger said. “But we are confident enough to give the reintroductions a fighting chance. If the new populations persist, it will be an important step forward in meeting Missouri’s goals for recovering Topeka shiners.”