Oregon chub, © Jeff Ziller/ODFW

Coast to Coast: A Chub-by Cascadian

“Coast to Coast” is a summer blog series highlighting some of America’s most imperiled wildlife. By using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new state-by-state endangered species map, we will tell  stories about native plants and animals in unique landscapes where Defenders will be focusing its conservation efforts in coming years.

This is the story of a mighty minnow called the Oregon chub. This tiny, silver-backed fish only grows up to nine inches long and hides out in slack water such as oxbows and beaver ponds. Chub can only be found in five counties in western Oregon along the Willamette River, but the plight of the chub is representative of many species across the region. While the chub is now on the road to recovery, this humble fish offers an important cautionary tale of what’s at stake for other species.

Bioregion known as Cascadia

Cascadia, known as “The Land of Falling Waters,” is an eco-region defined by the river valleys that drain the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. Those rivers were once dominated by big fish like salmon, steelhead and trout that dine on smaller fish like the Oregon chub. But the Willamette River Valley, home of the Oregon chub, is where nearly two-thirds of Oregonians also make their home, causing serious trouble for the chub and other fish.

The Willamette River was once the major creator of still, shallow water that the Oregon chub needs to survive. However, the chub’s habitat was slowly destroyed as the river’s natural flows were cut off upstream. Extensive flood-control and dam management have caused marshes, oxbows and over-flow ponds to disappear. The chub nearly disappeared along with them; by 1993 populations had been reduced by 98%, and it was officially listed as an endangered species.

For almost five years, several small conservation measures were put in place. Agreements with local officials at water treatment plants, the Army Corp of Engineers and other organizations helped improve the chub’s status. However, in 1998, it was discovered that only 20 populations remained, and 12 of those had fewer than 100 individuals.

That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a recovery plan that included protecting critical chub habitat, reintroduction of populations into previously populated areas, and programs to raise public awareness. It was a huge success.  In 2010, the chub became the comeback kid of Oregon.  The once-dwindling species boomed to over 20 populations of at least 500 fish, enough to merit a change of its status from “endangered” to “threatened.”

Listen to experts from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife talk about their successful recovery efforts:

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While chub populations are finally improving, other fish species in Cascadia still need our help. Pacific salmon and steelhead populations, for example, are still well below historic levels as a result of decades of dam-building and water pollution. That’s why Defenders has been fighting attempts in Congress to lift vital protections that keep our rivers clean and our fish healthy. Pesticides, in particular, are still a major threat to many species across the region, including the Oregon chub. Yet Big Ag and pesticide manufacturers want to make it easier to poison our waterways with toxic pesticides. Help us stand up to special interests and keep our rivers safe for people and wildlife!