Collaborating for Conservation: Coming Together to Conserve the Topeka Shiner

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Collaborating for Conservation: Coming Together to Conserve the Topeka Shiner

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (Unit) is leading research on Topeka shiner, a species listed in 1998 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to loss of critical habitat and subsequent population declines. The focus of this research is on population size and geographic distribution, and Topeka shiner food and habitat requirements.

male Topeka Shiner

Figure 1. A male Topeka Shiner exhibiting breeding coloration.

Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

The Topeka shiner is native to the Great Plains region of the Midwest, with a historical range including portions of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Once widespread within this geographic region, the range of the species has contracted by about 80%. Topeka shiner generally reside in small streams and have been found to prefer off-channel habitats such as oxbows, which are created naturally when a river meander is cut-off from the main channel via erosion, creating a “U” shaped pond in the floodplain.

Oxbows provide numerous ecosystem services. By receiving and retaining water, soil, and nutrients, oxbows can help increase agricultural production in the terrestrial landscape while enhancing water quality in the adjacent stream and reducing flooding. Additionally, oxbows enhance diversity by providing unique, pond-like habitats in floodplains that support diverse species of flora and fauna.

The Topeka Shiner Research Group, a collaboration between the Unit and Iowa State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management (NREM), was formed in 2008 with financial support from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the USGS. The group’s objective is to conduct research in support of Topeka Shiner conservation. The group is now in its twelfth year, its third generation of grants and projects, and has supported the research programs of six graduate students.

Prior to establishment of the group, information about Topeka shiner distribution and habitat needs in Iowa was limited. Management decisions were based on antiquated and anecdotal data, with little scientific support. Over the past 12 years, the group has furthered understanding of Topeka shiner and what it takes to conserve them.

Restored oxbow

Figure 2. A restored oxbow in the North Raccoon River basin in west-central Iowa.

Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

The group has released numerous findings of importance to conserving Topeka shiner and their oxbow habitats. In a study of 34 unrestored and 64 restored oxbows, they found Topeka shiners were present more often and with higher average relative abundances in restored oxbows. This study also revealed associations of Topeka shiner with certain other fish species and environmental factors, which are potentially useful in management, and will also inform the current effort to create an index of oxbow restoration quality. In an update of the status of Topeka shiner in Iowa the group concluded that following decades of decline, the status of Topeka shiner is now improving, and a potential reason is the recent acceleration of oxbow restorations in Iowa. Other studies have focused on identification of potential oxbow restoration sites using GIS, and genetic analysis of Topeka Shiner populations across the remaining range of the species.

To date, the group has published seven peer-reviewed articles (with many more in preparation and review), over 30 presentations at meetings and conferences, and dozens of technical reports and popular articles. In 2019 the group expanded their focus and became the Oxbow/Topeka Shiner Research Group with additional collaborators and a new cadre of graduate students. The shift in focus will broaden their research to include reduction of nitrate export in addition to a continuing emphasis on Topeka shiner conservation and study of critical habitat for the species. A summary of the two new research projects that began in 2019 can be found in the February 2020 issue of the Outdoor News Bulletin.

Collaboration has been key to the success of the group. Without the cast of collaborators ranging from federal agencies to state and non-governmental organizations to private industry groups and individual landowners, many of the research projects undertaken would not have been possible and the knowledge created by these projects would never have been realized.

The efforts to conserve Topeka shiners in the Boone River Watershed, in which the group has played a major role, was recognized by the USFWS’ National Fish Habitat Partnership as one of ten “2020 Waters to Watch.” The group is excited about the prospects of the newly launched projects and is looking forward to more years of successful collaboration with the common goal of conserving the Topeka shiner.

The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new, fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. Story by Dylan Osterhaus, Research Assistant, Fisheries Biology, Iowa State University.

Photo Credit
Iowa Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
July 15, 2020