Tiny Minnow Could Send Cattle Ranchers Out to Pasture

An endangered two-inch minnow called the Arkansas River shiner could drive farmers off their land because the federal government is making efforts to preserve the fish’s habitats.

The U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife has begun designating 1,100 miles of riverbank in four states as "critical habitats" to protect the threatened shiner.

Some say the minnow isn’t even a significant link in the food chain, and fishermen don’t like to use it as bait.

"Its value is not necessarily economic," said Jerry Brabander, an Oklahoma ecological field supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "The value really is [that it’s] telling us there is something wrong in the river system."

Cattle rancher Eldon Ridenour worries that his farm along the Canadian River in Oklahoma will be among the properties facing restrictions because of the designation.

"I do not have much control over what the government does — which is very scary," he said.

The irony of the situation is that U.S. Fish & Wildlife didn’t even want to establish the lands and riverbeds as critical habitat. The department was forced to make the designation because of a lawsuit filed by an environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The shiner is like a canary in a coal mine," said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist with the center. "As the fish declines, we see the decline of the overall river system — which we as humans ultimately depend on."

So the habitat designation was made to include riverbanks the shiner calls home that cut across swaths of land where the Beaver, Cimarron, Canadian and Arkansas rivers wind through four different states.

Farmers fear that those little minnows will force their cows to roam in other pastures — though Fish & Wildlife officials say they’re not going to start telling ranchers they can’t let their cattle graze on the riverbanks, or tell farmers they can’t fertilize. But the Oklahoma Farmers Union, for one, doesn’t trust the organizations involved in the lawsuit over the designation.

"Basically, a lot of those groups just want to get cattle off the land," said union vice president Terry Deitrich.