An Oregon fish is being proposed for removal from the federal list of endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the delisting process Monday for the Borax Lake chub.
The chub is a tiny golden minnow that only lives in one place — southeast Oregon’s Borax Lake. The lake is small, hot, alkaline and a rather surprising place to find fish.
The fish are believed to have been isolated there after the lake that covered the current-day Alvord Desert began to shrink more than 10,000 years ago. They took refuge around a hot spring that maintains Borax Lake year round.
Unlike many species, the Borax Lake chub wasn’t listed as endangered because its population was in decline. It was extended protections in the early 1980s, when geothermal energy exploration threatened to disrupt the spring that provided the fish’s only habitat.
Since listing, the 10-acre lake and land around it was purchased and protected by the Nature Conservancy.
“By doing that, it meant that there was no more grazing right up to the edge of the lake. It meant that the land in close proximity to the lake was not available for mineral or geothermal development, and it also restricted access to the lake,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Chris Allen.
The Bureau of Land Management then added an extra buffer by designating the public land around the lake an area of critical environmental concern. Allen said the state of Oregon also secured the water rights for the spring, making irrigation diversions a thing of the past.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says it has been putting an emphasis on reclassifying and delisting species when they’ve met recovery goals.
Because the Borax Lake chub is only found in one small lake in Harney County, over the course of 40 years, wildlife managers were able address most of the threats to the species.
“It is always to easier to work on recovery actions on species with more narrow distributions. And you can’t get too much more narrow than the Borax Lake chub,” Allen said. “The smaller the range of the species the more you have the ability to control conservation management of that by land ownership.”
But that same limited species range also presents a more dire situation.
“This is it. This is the only place on Earth where that fish lives, the only habitat that’s available,” said Garth Fuller, eastern Oregon conservation director with the Nature Conservancy. “It can’t disperse. It can’t move. There isn’t a standby. You don’t have a second chance.”
That’s part of the reason that Fuller would rather see the minnow down-listed to “threatened” instead of being removed from the endangered species list completely, as is being proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. He says there are still some threats remaining to the chub.
“I think the largest hurdle is the remaining potential for geothermal development on the private lands in the area. And even though it may seem unlikely, that geothermal reservoir that feeds the lake, that’s so critical to the habitat, is still vulnerable to development impacts,” Fuller said.
In an email, the Fish and Wildlife Service says the risk of geothermal development has “reduced.” And while “it's uncommon” to propose delisting instead of downlisting endangered species to threatened status, “in this case … the Service was overdue on moving forward with a downlisting, and in the intervening years the remaining recovery actions were completed." USFWS said the chub no longer meets the definition of threatened or endangered.
“We’re making some pretty huge strides in recovering threatened and endangered species in Oregon, more so than I think most, if not any other states across the U.S.,” Allen said.
He says in the last four years, two fish species have already been removed from the endangered species list, and another southern Oregon minnow, the Foskett speckled dace, is currently being proposed for delisting.
Monday’s announcement of the proposal to delist the Borax Lake chub kicks off a yearlong public process to decide if the conservation steps taken are enough to guarantee survival of the fish.