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Tiny Catfish Hangs On In Kansas

The Neosho madtom. Photo Credit: USFWS The Neosho madtom. Photo Credit: USFWS

By: Meg Dickey-Griffith, USFWS

Permitted use provided by: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

At just 3 inches long, the Neosho madtom (Noturus placidus) is hard to find. Today, these small catfish are extremely scarce—just four populations remain in the wild. Now living primarily in southeastern Kansas in the Neosho River, the species continues to face many of the same challenges today as it did over 20 years ago, when it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"The good news is that the fish is still with us," says Vernon Tabor, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Kansas Field Office. "The bad news is that little on-the-ground progress has been made to recover the historic population." Tabor has worked to conserve the madtom for years, as the recovery team coordinator.

These night feeding bottom-dwellers were once common throughout much of the Neosho River basin, living in various rivers and streams. While juveniles inhabit slower-moving water, adults prefer shallow water with swift currents, where they can wriggle into the gravel during the day. In-stream gravel mining practices once posed a severe threat to the Neosho madtom, and the reduction of this activity largely accounts for the stabilization of populations since it was listed in 1990.

The madtom was affected by a series of fish kills in the 1960s attributed to toxic run-off from livestock feedlots. After feedlots were regulated, the construction of dams has been the primary threat to remaining madtom populations. Discharges from the Tenkiller Ferry Dam in Oklahoma made the river too cold for madtom reproduction, and led to the species' extirpation in the lower Illinois River. Dams have also flooded the riffles where madtom live, altering water depth, turbidity, temperature, and nutrient levels. Not only do dams significantly reduce available habitat, but they isolate the remaining populations, weakening their genetic viability.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism on the potential removal of dams. Some low-head dams, such as the Correll Dam located near Emporia, Kansas, once served as water supply dams for the city. No longer in use for this purpose, the Correll Dam may be removed in upcoming years. According to Tabor, the removal of the Correll Dam would impact approximately 8 to 10 miles of the Neosho River, connecting madtom populations, allowing for movement, and returning the area to natural habitat.

Habitat restoration and conservation will be crucial in ensuring the survival of this unique catfish. The removal of non-essential dams may go a long way toward re-establishing a stable and viable population of fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work with others to balance the development of our nation's rivers and the health of our river ecosystems, complete with the survival of the Neosho madtom.


Meg Dickey-Griffith volunteered in the Service's Mountain-Prairie Regional Office. For questions about this story, please contact Leith Edgar at leith_edgar@fws.gov.

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