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Environmental Debate Rages over Protection Status of US Fish

Among the nearly 400 animals on the U.S. government's Endangered Species List is the Topeka Shiner, a small minnow once found in creeks and rivers throughout the American midwest. It's been protected since 1999, and South Dakota is among its designated critical habitats. That protected status has made a big difference for the little fish.

State wildlife officials, conservationists, and local farmers and ranchers all agree that the Topeka Shiner has survived and prospered in South Dakota, much more so than in any other state in the region.

But debate over how to care for South Dakota's now robust population has led to disagreement between those who say the fish needs continued federal protection, and those who say it's time for such rules to become more flexible for farmers and ranchers.

The Vermillion River winds quietly through a ravine, blanketed with dead leaves and snow. The mint green waters ripple gently, past large branches that protrude from the curvy banks of ice and mud. Only the distant hum of traffic and the occasional barking of a dog break the silence.

But while the surface of the Vermillion is still, its waters teem with small, silvery minnows called Topeka Shiners. And while the fish's habitat here is serenely quiet, the controversy surrounding it is not.

Jarrod Johnson, a fifth-generation farmer and a member of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Assocation, says "what happens with the Topeka Shiner [protection regulations], is that all these things that basically are put in place to kind of be a safety net for the nation's food supply come to a screeching halt."

Recently, the South Dakota Cattlemen's Assocation passed resolutions supporting efforts to 'de-list' the minnow, and drop South Dakota from the list of critical habitats. Pointing to the high number of Topeka Shiners frequenting the state's waterways, Mr. Johnson and his colleagues say continuing the regulations that protect endangered species will punish the farmers and ranchers whose land management practices have helped the minnow prosper.

"If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife [Service] is not satisfied with what the management practices are in regards to the Shiner, any federal funding such as federal crop insurance, loan deficiency payments could then be held up or not paid out basically due to their dissatisfaction with the way that Shiner's been managed and we think that's just unacceptable," he says.

The cattlemen would like to see restrictions on the use of their land near streams and during spawning season eased or eliminated.

Many Topeka Shiners live in rivers, though some have appeared in trenches, dugouts, and culverts adjacent to farms and grazing land. Some of those waterways only flow during certain times of the year, requiring farmers and ranchers to maintain the groundwater seepage that's essential for the minnow's survival.

While that may seem like a lot of effort for a fish that's only seven centimeters long on average, wildlife biologists, like Pete Gober, say it's worth it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife official says the Topeka Shiner is an indicator species, its presence in a stream suggests that the waterway is healthy and suitable for other fish and aquatic life.

"It's found in intermittent and perennial streams [waterways that dry up periodically and those that flow year-round], that provide good water quality and holes deep enough so they don't freeze in the winter time. The estimate is that there are approximately 35 to 40 streams with Topeka Shiner populations in South Dakota," he says.

Mr. Gober commends South Dakota for its successful handling of the fish… and sympathizes with the state's farmers and ranchers, who must continue to comply with federal rules as long as the Topeka Shiner still needs protection in neighboring states.

Adding to the conflict is a recent Bush Administration plan that could ease regulations in the 1977 Federal Clean Water Act. That legislation sets standards for water quality and restricts what can be dumped into the nation's waterways. According to Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation, any change in water management practices could threaten the Topeka Shiner and other aquatic species.

"Any fish or aquatic life is going to be potentially threatened by these rule changes. The Clean Water Act requires people to get a permit, not just to fill in or channelize a creek, stream or wetland, but also to discharge pollutants," says Ms. Sibbing. "So if you can legally discharge pollutants into a wetland or stream that they consider isolated, any life in waters downstream could potentially be threatened."

These concerns, and those of farmers like Jarrod Johnson, are of great interest to Jeffrey Shearer, a wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. For several months now, he has been gathering input on a new management plan for the Topeka Shiner.

"It kind of gives us working document that gets everyone on the same page in South Dakota, whether it's all the state agencies, down to the district conservation folks in each county and it kind of tells them what we're doing with the Topeka Shiner," he says. "Why it's listed, why we have the status of the shiner that we do in South Dakota, and how we're going to manage for the shiner in the future."

Mr. Shearer says a finalized management plan should be ready by August. Before that time, agencies and other interested parties will have a chance to weigh in on the future of the Topeka Shiner, and whether South Dakota will remain on the list of critical habitats. It's a debate that may determine the course of land management practices and conservation procedures around the country for years to come.