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The Planet
March 1999 Volume 6, Number 2


by Ken Midkiff, Ozark Chapter Director

"Just bait" is how one farm bureau member describes the Topeka shiner. A small, minnow-like fish once prevalent in cool, clear prairie streams in five midwestern states, its numbers are now in severe decline.

But a religious farmer who testified at many hearings to determine the fate of the fish gave it a more exalted status when she called it "one of God's creatures."

So which is it: bait or blessed? Well, as far as the Endangered Species Act goes, it's neither - but we'll get to that in a minute.

However you look at it, the fish's future got brighter in December when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the shiner on the endangered species list. This was a victory for members of the Club's Ozark Chapter who fought hard for protection of the fish.

At public hearings and in letters to the editor, Missouri activists heard a wide range of arguments to protect the shiner - from dry science to dramatic hyperbole, to wit:

-- Martha Stevens and a few other deeply religious farmers made eloquent presentations advocating for the protection of God's creations and that all things have value unto themselves.

-- The Sierra Club and others spoke of "indicator species" - that the drastic reductions in shiner populations demonstrates that the watersheds are being severely degraded. n Farmers concerned about the demise of the family farm and the encroachment of corporate mega-hog operations presented the viewpoint that they had been good stewards and the assistance of government agencies was needed to protect their streams and lakes - and the Topeka shiner.

-- State fish and wildlife biologists presented reams of data from extensive studies demonstrating that the fish was seriously threatened with extinction.

These arguments and scenarios have been applied to the Tellico snail darter, the Mexican gray wolf, running buffalo clover, the Ozark's blind cavefish, and various warblers and sparrows. From charismatic megafauna (lions, tigers and bears) to species that no one has ever heard of, the same discussions apply.

But, legally, only one argument matters. That is, that the species has declined in population and range. The Endangered Species Act does not take sides: If a species is rare, threatened or endangered, it must be listed. It's a recognition by the U.S. Congress that all things have intrinsic worth.

So why testify? Why write letters and hold rallies and sell T-shirts in our work to protect endangered species?

Because sometimes bad science gets turned into policy, and good science is thwarted because no one from the public speaks up. We've all seen it happen, and that's why we continue to advocate on behalf of plants and animals that are on the brink.

That's why Terry Spence, a cattleman in northern Missouri, showed up to testify for listing the Topeka shiner: "I'm here to tell you that I and other family farmers have taken care of our waters, and we are concerned about what is happening to our land and creeks and the creatures that are dependent on good stewardship."

Terry's neighbors came along to show that farmers living in the range of the last remaining populations cared. That concern carried the day and gave Fish and Wildlife the public support for a scientific decision - a decision that benefits fish and people.

Environmentalists are sometimes accused of valuing "cockroaches, rats and owls" above human beings. Nothing could be further from the truth: We value all beings because we are humans, and can see that what affects the least among us, affects us all.

Go back to the first article, "Club Cheers Clinton Initiative."
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