Prairie chub Macrhybopsis australis
ESA status: petitioned for listing
The Red River basin is a network of rivers, streams, and watersheds criss-crossing the Texas panhandle and extending into Oklahoma. It has changed quite a bit since the days when fire, bison grazing, and flooding were the main shapers of the floodplain ecosystem.Today, fire is suppressed, bison are gone, and the natural flood regime of the rivers has been drastically altered by dams and irrigation withdrawals. But still persisting in shallow waters and isolated pools, hovering over gravel or clean sandy streambeds, is a little fish swimming upstream against the current of extinction – the prairie chub.
The prairie chub is unprepossessing; a really big one may top out at three inches in length, and it is a pale, translucent gray, only standing out from the water it swims in by virtue of small black spots on its sides. But it is remarkably tough - adapted to the volatile conditions of prairie waterways, it can live through natural drought, flooding, and high salinity levels in its freshwater home. Lately, though, it has been facing unprecedented challenges; humans have completely altered the waterways within the Red River basin with cattle ranching, crop farming, and oil and gas operations. The temperature of the water has changed, the flow has changed, the very shapes of the rivers have changed, and they are surrounded by thickets of invasive species such as tamarisk and Russian olive. The water quality has worsened; pollutions such as pesticides run off from nearby crop fields. Dams and reservoirs create barriers and eradicate fish from streams they once inhabited: as just one example, the Altus Dam on the Red River eliminated the prairie chub population above the dam.
The chub may be small, but it is an indicator of something much bigger. Its disappearance from much of its former range, including the Washita River and the upper North Fork of the Red River, is a warning sign of the drastic changes taking place in the Red River Basin. WildEarth Guardians is pressing for protection of this fish under the Endangered Species Act – if the chub is protected, everything and everyone in the interconnected waterways of the Red River Basin will benefit from a cleaner, healthier river system.
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photo credit: Zachary Shattuck