Shine On: Bringing Back the Topeka Shiner

A small minnow makes a triumphant return to streams at Pawnee and Dunn Ranch Prairies.

The return of healthy Topeka shiner populations will restore an aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage and serve as an ongoing indicator of good conservation and land use practices.

Tallgrass prairies of the Grand River Grasslands (home to the Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch and Pawnee Prairies), are the most endangered, least protected habitat type on Earth. The most threatened aspect of these grasslands is the prairie headwater stream system and its associated wetlands and wet prairies. The sponge-like, porous soils of healthy tallgrass prairies absorb most rainfall, filtering it to the groundwater supply, where it is gradually discharged to headwater streams throughout the year. Early settlers noted that Missouri’s prairie streams often had permanent flow even in their upper reaches, and were characterized by their clear water and abundance of fish.

The devastating loss of prairie during the past 175 years has resulted in the severe degradation of almost all of Missouri’s prairie headwater streams. Surface runoff and lack of infiltration in the watershed cause frequent floods after heavy rains, creating eroded, muddy ditches. In the summer, without permanent recharge sources, stream beds dry up completely. One victim of these changes is the Topeka shiner, a silvery fish less than three inches long with a prominent black stripe. Topeka shiners are restricted to prairie headwater stream systems, where healthy watersheds provide permanent water, even in dry periods. These fish formerly ranged from Minnesota to eastern Kansas, but are now found in a small fraction of their former abundance and range. In Missouri, these fish once occurred in several streams; today they are known only from two populations in the state. Topeka shiners are federally listed as endangered.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) developed techniques to raise the fish for reintroduction into healthy habitats. MDC also conducted habitat suitability surveys, tested stream channel improvements, prepared potential spawning beds, and removed problem fish from old farm ponds at Dunn Ranch Prairie. The Conservancy has aggressively restored prairie vegetation in the watershed and removed invasive species that can increase runoff, making Dunn Ranch Prairie an excellent site for the reintroduction.

The fish were released in November of 2013 and are doing well in their new home. Jerry Wiechman, an MDC fisheries management biologist, says reintroduction “is an important step in maintaining species diversity and keeping Missouri streams healthy.” Wiechman thinks that landowners in the watershed will benefit from voluntary incentives for restoration and conservation practices, creating a win/win for producers and stream conservation. The return of healthy Topeka shiner populations is restoring an aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage and serve as an ongoing indicator of good conservation and land use practices.

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Hoar Frost at Dunn Ranch Prairie


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