More than a Minnow

By Harold Kerns | February 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 1999

In 1884, Professor F.W. Cragin was collecting fish from Shunanunga Creek, a stream running through Topeka, Kan. He gathered three specimens of a fish that had never been scientifically described. They became known as Topeka shiners.

Perhaps a more descriptive name for this fish would have been the tallgrass prairie shiner, since the original range of this fish lies almost entirely within an area that was once covered by tallgrass prairie.

The Topeka shiner lives in portions of six states-Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota- but has been lost in 90 percent of its original range.

Cragin described fish that are small, even by minnow standards. Adults are less than 3 inches in total length. They have dark stripes along their midsides that run from head to tail fin. A small wedge-shaped black spot appears at the base of the tail fin. The upper portion of their sides are greenish, and the scales are outlined in black, lending the fish a cross hatched appearance. The body below the midside is silvery-white. Like many fish, adult males develop bright spawning colors. The fins and heads of spawning males become bright orange-red.

Topeka shiners spawn from late May until mid-July, usually on the edge of green or orange-spotted sunfish nests. This proximity means the shiner's developing eggs benefit from the sunfish's parental care, which includes fanning the nest to remove silt and other debris and protecting it from predators.

Topeka shiners live in the upper reaches of small prairie streams, where they find clear water and streambeds of sand, gravel or bedrock. Some of these streams dry up in summer, except for isolated pools maintained by an underground flow of water.

As recently as the late 1980s, biologists considered Missouri to have a relatively strong population of Topeka shiners. During the early 1990s, however, we became alarmed by evidence of a rapid decline of the species.

Missouri now has just three remnant populations of the Topeka shiner. They survive in Bonne Femme Creek (Boone County), Moniteau Creek (Cooper and Moniteau counties) and Sugar Creek (Daviess and Harrison counties). A handful of isolated individuals have been captured in other streams.

Without question, their continued existence in Missouri is in jeopardy. The Conservation Department listed the Topeka shiner as an endangered species in Missouri in 1996 and in January of this year was added to the federal list.

A combination of factors have caused the dramatic decline of the Topeka shiner. The settlement and conversion of tallgrass prairie for agriculture has resulted in topsoil, chemicals and nutrients being washed from the land into streams. Clearing streamside vegetation increased stream sedimentation. Topeka shiners are intolerant of excessive amounts of sediment, which muddies the water and forms thick layers of silt over the stream bottom. When streams are channelized, they lose their deep pools and varying flow-habitat the shiners depend on.

In some cases, landowners have constructed ponds on top of stream channels, permanently flooding the stream habitat and altering the water flow downstream. Pond construction, coupled with stocking largemouth bass and other predatory fish, has impacted local Topeka shiner populations.

Urbanization has undoubtedly hastened the loss of several populations. When land changes from pasture to pavement, siltation, pesticides, sewage and changes in water flow in streams increase. The effects of urbanization are especially apparent in the vicinity of Columbia, one of Missouri's fastest growing cities and an area that once had numerous Topeka shiner populations.

We know of only one Topeka shiner population in Missouri on public property, so the continued existence of the Topeka shiner is dependent upon private landowners. In an effort to assist people who own and manage streams that are home to Topeka shiners, the Conservation Department has joined with other government agencies to provide cost-share incentives and technical help in watersheds containing the strongest remaining populations.

For example, cost-share funds are available to provide water from sources other than streams for livestock.

Why should people care if this small minnow disappears? It is the responsibility of people as caretakers of this planet to ensure the continued existence of other species.

In addition, housed within the genetic material of Topeka shiners may be an undiscovered benefit to humankind that would be lost if the species disappears.

More importantly, the Topeka shiner also is an indicator of environmental quality. The dramatic decline of this small shiner is a clear signal of a similar decline in water quality of prairie streams-water that is essential to human health and prosperity.

More than 1,000 Stream Teams-organized groups of volunteers-help monitor and clean up Missouri's waterways. To join or form one in your community, write Stream Teams, Missouri Department of Conservation, Stream Unit, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102-0180, or call, (573) 751 4115, ext. 169.

David Klindt loves the land he farms and wants to take good care of it. But he admits to having misgivings when he learned that an endangered species lived in Sugar Creek, whose branches extend onto the Klindt family's 1,300-acre farming operation in Harrison County. Looking back, he realizes that what he feared might be a problem was actually part of a solution.

Klindt's worst fear was that the presence of the Topeka shiner would bring land-use restrictions that would make farming less profitable. Instead, he found that the 2-inch fish's presence brought opportunities to try new, more profitable, sustainable farming practices.

A Farmer's Solution

by Jim Low

Klindt represents the third district in the Missouri House of Representatives, where he serves on the House Agri-business Committee. Before he learned about the Topeka shiner, he was exploring new farming practices to improve his farm's profitability.

"I had land that I knew would be coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program," says Klindt, "I didn't want to plow it up, because it wasn't really good crop land. I had read about controlled grazing and attended schools about it, and it seemed like good business."

By carefully controlling where cattle graze and providing water where they forage, this system reduces the effort cattle must make to meet their nutritional needs. But controlled grazing also is good conservation. It keeps livestock out of streams and other water sources, improving the purity of the water they drink as it reduces erosion and pollution, helping keep the Topeka shiner in business.

To encourage practices that benefit farmers and wildlife, the Conservation Department, the Department of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of Missouri Extension Service offer programs with technical assistance, cost-sharing and other incentives.

One of the programs that fit Klindt's needs was the Agricultural Nonpoint Source Pollution Special Area Land Treatment Project. This program helps landowners restore and maintain protective stream corridors. Klindt also is working with the new Conservation Reserve Program, making traditional stream crossings more environmentally friendly and managing pastures for warm-season grasses, and mixes of legumes and cool-season grasses.

"We tried to experiment with several different practices so others could see and decide if they wanted to try them," says Klindt. "The cost sharing and other incentives made it even more affordable, but we would have done these things anyway just from a business standpoint. It's great that it worked out to protect the Topeka shiner, too."

To help spread the word about the conservation-wise farming practices and incentive programs, Klindt and his family hosted a farm field day last August. Neighbors who had been wondering how changes on the Klindt farm were working got a chance to see the new conservation practices at work. Landowner-to-landowner networking is one key to improving the way land is managed for endangered species.

"Progressive, successful community leaders like Mr. Klindt have tremendous power to raise awareness that good conservation can be good farming," says Conservation Department Endangered Species Coordinator Amy Salveter. "When his neighbors see that he's getting positive results-in addition to helping species recover-word spreads."

To learn more about programs that provide technical assistance, equipment loan and cost share for soil, water and wildlife conservation agricultural practices, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation District office or the Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.


This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer