By Laura Zuckerman
Feb 4 (Reuters) - A two-inch minnow found only in an Oregon valley will be the first fish removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list because it no longer faces extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday.
The Oregon chub once swam by the millions in the ponds, sloughs and marshes near the Williamette River in western Oregon. Its numbers declined sharply over the last century as wetlands were drained for development and due to predation by nonnative fish like largemouth bass.
Fewer than 1,000 remained in just eight wetlands in 1993 when the Oregon chub gained protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Today, more than 150,000 chubs are estimated in 80 sites along the river valley because of recovery efforts like restoring water flows, floodplain reconstruction and stocking in private ponds, said Paul Scheerer, leader of the native fishes project for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It's a sign of hope not just for this fish, which is sort of inconspicuous, but for efforts everywhere that partner with federal and state agencies, private landowners, tribes and towns to prevent species from disappearing off the face of the earth," he said.
A 60-day public comment period on the proposal to lift federal safeguards from the once-imperiled minnow opens on Thursday. The Interior Department agency is to finalize delisting within the next 12 months.
'SMALL BUT IMPORTANT'
The Oregon chub eats aquatic insects like mosquitoes and has a lifespan of up to 10 years. Scheerer said repair of its riparian habitat also helps rare amphibians like the red-legged frog and native reptiles like the Western pond turtle.
"Even my own mother said to me, 'You're recovering a bait fish?' The Oregon chub may be small but it has an important role in the larger scheme of things," said Scheerer.
"This is an excellent example of how the Endangered Species Act is intended to function: partners working together to recover an endangered species," Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
There are 85 U.S. species of fish listed as endangered and 71 listed as threatened, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Five types of fish, including the Tecopa pupfish of the California desert, have been delisted due to extinction in the 40 years since the law was enacted, said Scheerer.
Phil Pister, retired fishery biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and founder of the conservation-oriented Desert Fishes Council, said it is important to save fish like Oregon chub that have no apparent commercial value.
"When people ask why it's important to rescue endangered fish, I ask them, 'How would you feel if you were the fish?'" (Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio)