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Chub's comeback

(The Register-Guard) — SPRINGFIELD -- Tom and Ellen Murphy, George Grier and other private landowners throughout the Willamette Valley played a big role in the recovery of a small fish.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday morning that it's proposing to remove the Oregon chub, found only in the backwaters of the valley, from its list of endangered and threatened species.

The silvery minnow, which just two decades ago was near the brink of extinction, would be the first fish to be removed from the list as a result of government intervention in the 40-year history of the Endangered Species Act.

The 60-day public comment period for the "delisting" proposal, which includes ongoing monitoring of the population and removal of its critical habitat designation, begins Thursday. The federal agency has up to one year to determine whether the proposed delisting should become final.

In announcing the proposed action, Robyn Thorson, director of the federal fish and wildlife agency's Pacific region, thanked landowners who voluntarily allowed use of their properties to hold recovering populations of the fish.

"Endangered species can be a scary proposition to some people," Thorson told dozens of people who gathered for the announcement at a 92-acre conservation farm near the banks of the McKenzie River east of Springfield. "These landowners stepped up."

Gov. John Kitzhaber, in a written statement, praised property owners' willingness to work with government agencies on the recovery project.

"This is a huge compliment to Oregonians and our history of conservation leadership, and an extraordinary testament to the power of collaboration between landowners and local, state, tribal and federal agency representatives," he said.

The Murphys acknowledged that they were uneasy after Oregon State University researchers discovered Oregon chub in streams that run through their former 41 acres of property south of Corvallis.

The couple agreed to have a pond dug on their property to hold a recovering population of Oregon chub. The population of minnows introduced into the pond in 2011 has grown to more than 1,500 from 219.

Such ponds re-create the fish's preferred habitat -- bogs, marshes and sloughs with abundant vegetation where they can hide and spawn -- that dried up with the construction of dams in the river basin. They also keep Oregon chub away from non-native fish such as bass and bluegill, which contributed to their near-demise.

The Murphys said their minds were put at ease by signing a voluntary 10-year agreement that says that as long as they abided by certain rules for their fish pond, the agency couldn't add additional restrictions on the use of their land without their consent. The rules include not draining or introducing non-native fish to the pond, and barred felling timber, allowing grazing or applying herbicide within 100 feet of it.

The Murphys have since sold their property, but the new owner continues to abide by the terms of the agreement.

The couple said they were happy to do their part to aid the fish's recovery.

"You live on the land, you have an identity with it and you like to take care it," Tom Murphy said.

Biologists say such arrangements have helped increase the total number of Oregon chub from about 1,000 at the time of its listing as an endangered species in 1993 to nearly 160,000 today.

Nine private landowners have signed the chub protection agreements and hold about 14 percent of the total number of fish so far. Public agencies, including the Willamette National Forest and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, used their property for the remaining percentage.

"It's very satisfying," said Karen Finley, who had a pond added to her 50 acres of property south of Corvallis where she and her husband, Tad Buford, run a beekeeping business.

"I'm proud of both the state and federal biologists, as well as the local private ownership, to make this happen. It's a good example of how things can go right."

George Grier and his wife, Cynthia Pappas, donated an 11-acre conservation easement to the nonprofit McKenzie River Trust for preservation of property along the river near 66th Street in east Springfield. Oregon chub were discovered in the area in 2002.

"It's a special day," Grier said. "There are a lot of scientists who work their whole lives and never get to see this outcome."

Reporter Serena Markstrom contributed to this report.


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