Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Guest Post - Steve Haslouer

Longtime KSAFS member Steve Haslouer, lead author of Haslouer et al.’s (2005) paper on “Current status of native fish species in Kansas,” retired in 2014 following 37½ years as a stream fish biologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  He left his colleagues at KDHE with a few observations, and has agreed to share them with the KSAFS membership.

Notes in Passing 
by Steve Haslouer

The state of the aquatic environment in Kansas has seen significant changes, even during the last 40 years since I was an undergraduate student in Frank Cross’s ichthyology course at KU. A number of species of fish common to the state at that time are either greatly reduced in range or abundance, or (in a few cases) considered extirpated from the state. If we go back 140 years, the numbers are even more disturbing.

 40 years, or even 140 years, is a blink of the eye in nature’s time frame. Most (if not all) of these species antedate human inhabitation of this continent. A number of them date back in time to the dinosaurs.

 Most of the fishes at risk in Kansas are of little interest as sport species, which may tend to minimize public concern for their welfare. Perhaps we can change that perception.

 As conservationists, we have a host of challenges facing us in Kansas. How do we deal with the obvious need for future human alteration of the environment in the face of our increasing population?
Continuing threats to small, fragmented, or otherwise vulnerable fish species populations across the state are posed by construction of impoundments (both small and large), which inundate obligatory stream habitat of many native species.

Streamflow diversions, disruptions, or curtailments have demonstrably driven several species in Kansas to the brink of extirpation.

Urbanization, agricultural development, and road construction and the ensuing increases in stream turbidity, sedimentation, and fragmentation also pose a threat to fragile populations. Finally, there is the obvious threat of urban, industrial, and municipal pollutants.

In my 40 years of working with Kansas fishes I’m afraid I’ve become somewhat pessimistic about effectively re-establishing extirpated fish species. Most of the changes in habitat or water quality seem so precipitous, one sided, and economically irreversible that it is difficult for me to envision a return to previous conditions.

 As an example, streambed sedimentation, on an ecologically meaningful time frame, seems to me to be a strictly one-way process. Plowed prairies now blanket riffles and pools once used for spawning by a number of our threatened native fishes. The many watershed structures and large reservoirs built in Kansas over the last 50 years reduce or eliminate the spate flows that once were instrumental in sweeping away such sediments.

 Flow regime modifications resulting from construction of large mainstem reservoirs have devastated species requiring seasonal high flows for successful spawning in our large rivers. These dams will last for human generations. Most of the fish species affected by these changes measure generations in 2 to 3 years. Once gone, there is little or no chance of their re-establishment during our lifetimes.

 It is my belief that the state of Kansas faces the great challenge of finding the political will and financial wherewithal to negotiate or purchase conservation easements and, where necessary, water rights along streams and rivers and within watersheds known to support remaining populations of fish species at risk. Such easements would include requiring riparian buffer zones to minimize the contributions of sediments and other pollutants, specifying minimum stream flows, and in some cases mandating seasonal high flows to encourage successful spawning by species known to require such spate flows.

 I don’t know what the next 40 years holds for the future of fishes in Kansas. Some of the negative changes over the last 40 years seem to have been a complete surprise to people much more knowledgeable than myself.

Unfortunately, I find myself mostly at a loss when it comes to detailing a “success story” for a native species considered imperiled 40 years ago.

 We do, however, have a number of species, which, though limited in distribution and abundance, seem to be holding their own. Maybe we should be examining these with an eye towards determining why, though parsimonious in numbers and range, they are still found where they are. Any lessons learned from these studies might well be applied to similar species.

 I know that we will always face the question “What is (name your species) good for?” For me, at least, the answer is that they are good for the simple joy of appreciating the diversity of life. I realize that a number of constituencies will require a more fiscally and logically compelling answer to that question. It is our challenge to find and deliver that answer in a persuasive manner.