The Big Lessons of Little Creek Conservation
From stream restoration to sustainable agriculture, a Missouri conservation initiative demonstrates that watersheds can recover.
On the tallgrass prairie just south of the Iowa border, a tiny minnow has a newly renovated home—and that has big implications for this ecosystem.
Construction crews spent the spring of 2022 digging out and rebuilding a stretch of scalloped, eroded banks along Little Creek on The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) property near Hatfield, Missouri. The new banks are gentle slopes, assembled in layers of stones, earth and tangled tree roots to accommodate the natural rise and fall of the creek. A mix of native grasses, shrubs and trees are sending down roots that will help hold it all in place while filtering any water running down into Little Creek.
Even the stream itself has received an upgrade.
The water used to plunge six feet off the lip of a box culvert as it passed under an old state road, creating a small waterfall that effectively severed the lower creek from the upper creek for anything that might wish to swim upstream. Now, a bioengineered underwater ramp ensures the current moves easily at one, smooth level.
In short, it should be just the place for the Topeka shiner.
An endangered fish warns of trouble for prairie watersheds
A native of the Great Plains, the little fish was placed on the federal endangered list nearly 25 years ago as its natural habitat deteriorated or was destroyed outright. In announcing the shiner’s designation as an endangered species in 1998, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service noted the minnow’s occupied range had declined by an estimated 80%—50% of that decline occurring during the past 25 years. That was bad news, and not only for the shiner.
“More importantly, the Topeka shiner also is an indicator of environmental quality,” the Missouri Department of Conservation wrote in 1999. “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.”
TNC’s project on Little Creek is helping undo some of that damage while serving as a model for what’s possible. “This is an opportunity,” says Steve Herrington, director of science and impact measures for TNC in Missouri. “We’re learning from projects like this and how to transfer what we learn about these types of projects elsewhere in [the shiner’s] range.”
Manmade problems for migratory fish—and communities that need them
The silvery minnow’s range had always been limited, but it used to be a common part of Midwestern ecosystems. Found in parts of six states across the Great Plains, it migrated through the oxbows and shallow pools of the freshwater streams winding through tallgrass prairies.
A big part of the problem for shiners and millions of other migratory fish around the world is manmade. Once free-flowing rivers have been chopped up with dams and other blockades that keep fish from swimming to habitat they need for food and breeding. In the U.S. alone, more than two million dams, culverts and other barriers keep fish from migrating upstream. And the water that backs up behind them can create stagnant pools, fatally trapping fish in overheated waters. The results are devasting—40% of the country’s freshwater fish have been listed as imperiled, decimating commercial fisheries and communities that depend on them.
Restoring waterways can help migratory fish rebound fast
But there are signs of hope. Migratory fish have proven remarkably resilient. In just one example, TNC and its partners completed a river restoration in 2016 on the Penobscot River in Maine, opening up nearly 2,000 miles of habitat. The following spring, the river herring numbers grew from a few hundred to nearly 2 million.
In the past five years, TNC has taken on an ambitious slate of river and creek restorations in Missouri. Within Castlewood State Park, a popular hiking destination in St. Louis County, TNC and partners have rebuilt 2,000 feet of riverbank along Kiefer Creek and improved roughly nine acres of riparian habitat—the vegetation that transfers from the bank to the rest of the land. In McDonald County, TNC restored 1,650 feet of streambank along the Elk River where a landowner was losing 8,000 tons of soil every year to erosion.
Another project, on LaBarque Creek, rebuilt the banks with a mix of root wads, natural fibers and live plantings to protect the home of more than 40 species of fish. We followed a similar model to restore 2,000 feet along the edges of Huzzah Creek, where erosion was eating away at family farm and dumping harmful sediment into the Meramec tributary.
Missouri Stream Restoration Projects
Future plans include working with partners to create three fish passages—avenues for fish to swim through former blockades—in the upper reaches of Shoal Creek of the Ozarks. The project will replace low-water crossings, essentially roads through shallow points in the creek, with free-span bridges that will simultaneously allow fish to migrate and protect people from dangerous, swift-moving water that tops the crossings during storms.
20 years of conservation at Little Creek shows clear outcomes
The project to reconnect five miles of Little Creek’s habitat offers an opportunity to continue that progress, and not just for a native minnow. Little Creek is about more than the Topeka shiner—and TNC’s work there goes back more than 20 years.
In 1999, TNC bought 2,281 acres in Hatfield and set about restoring the tallgrass prairies that once blanketed the center of the United States. With the land came the headwaters of Little Creek. In the past two-plus decades, Dunn Ranch Prairie has grown to 3,258 acres and evolved into a jewel of conservation. Bison once again roam the land, a small but hardy pack of prairie chickens pick their way among the forbs, and migratory butterflies and birds float in through the seasons.
As the prairie flourished, Little Creek has grown healthier, too.
Dunn Ranch Prairie
Since TNC purchased the land in 1999, Dunn Ranch Prairie has become a hub for prairie restoration and research, and grassland demonstration projects. From the winding paths of the iconic bison herd to the booming sounds of the state-endangered Greater prairie-chicken, Dunn Ranch is a haven for a multitude of wildlife.
Learning to ranch for healthy water
“Taking care of the watershed is the first step to taking care of the water,” Herrington says.
In 2017, TNC bought a farm just across State Route M to the south of Dunn Ranch Prairie. Now called Little Creek Farm, it has become a demonstration site for innovative ranching practices, including sustainable grazing. Kent Wamsley, TNC in Missouri’s grasslands and sustainable agriculture strategy manager, says part of the work has been to protect Little Creek, which flows under Route M and on through the ranch.
One of the first things TNC did was to fence off pastures to keep the ranch’s cattle out of the creek. Cows trample creek banks on their way to and through the water and can graze riparian buffers to the dirt, contributing to erosion. With no grass to hold it in place, the earth—and any cattle waste or other material that’s in it—washes into the creek.
Sediment fills the pools where little freshwater fishes, such as the Topeka shiner, go to seek cooler, deeper water to feed and spawn. And it also washes downstream, where it requires more effort and expense for water treatment plants and the people who depend on it.
“We’re sending cleaner water downstream,” Wamsley says.
Little Creek’s lessons for Missouri lands and waters
The project provides real-world examples of strategies that ranchers can adopt. Not everyone can afford a full-scale restoration on the level of what’s happening at Little Creek, but Wamsley hopes people will see relatively easy, low-cost aspects of the work that will help them protect their own land.
They might not be able to bring in crews to rebuild creek banks, but maybe they can plant a riparian buffer. Even stringing a strand of electric fence to keep cattle away from the stream can make a huge difference by allowing grasses to grow back along the edges.
Those are the kinds of ideas that Wamsley hopes others will take away from the Little Creek restoration, and he’s looking forward to the conversations it sparks.
"Here are all the things you can do," Wamsley says. "Where are you at now, and where can we make a positive step forward for conservation?"
At Little Creek, the next steps will be to turn it over to nature. All this work has been aimed at creating the right conditions for the creek and prairie to heal themselves. Herrington says they're almost there. The hydrology of the headwaters, buoyed by the deep roots of a healthy prairie, is sound, and the newly rebuilt structure of the creek downstream from the culvert is designed to mimic natural systems.
Now, Topeka shiners can migrate freely up and downstream from Little Creek Farm and access more than five miles of stream channel on Dunn Ranch Prairie, where they can mingle with existing groups, helping to stabilize the population in a changing climate.
Herrington envisions a scene in the future where a thick border of native plants, like Little Bluestem and Switchgrass, grows tall along the banks, while a gentle current flows down from the headwaters. One day, the branches of Sandbar Willows and Swamp White Oaks will curl overhead. In their cooling shade, schools of tiny minnow will be right at home.