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Endangered species get a habitat boost

Article cover photo
Highly diverse areas of flowering plants are ideal for the rusty patched bumble bee, an endangered species. ISA is working to restore habitat for this pollinator and other species as well. (Photo courtesy of Conservation Blueprint)

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and Syngenta have teamed up to restore habitat for some tiny creatures that call Iowa home.

The organizations are working on two projects focusing on the Topeka shiner and the rusty patched bumble bee, both of which are listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. The projects focus on restoring and reintroducing habitat that benefit these species on acres not in row crop production.  

A little fish in a big oxbow

The Topeka shiner, a minnow that thrives in off-channel pools and oxbows, has been on the endangered species list since 1998 due to the loss of its habitat.

Oxbows are created over time by a stream meandering and cutting itself off, creating a U-shaped backwater area. These areas were named from their resemblance to the U-shaped piece of wood that connects with the yoke around an ox’s neck.

However, years of flooding, stream straightening and sediment filling have rendered them unsuitable or eliminated them altogether for wildlife habitat.

Through a grant from Syngenta, ISA has been working with farmers and landowners in the Boone and Raccoon river watersheds to identify old oxbows that could be suitable for restoration along these two rivers and their tributaries.

“The old oxbow area is sighted through historical mapping and visual observation then dug out down to the same elevation as the stream bed,” said Corey McKinney, ISA natural resource specialist. “The banks are graded and planted with forbs and grasses.”

As of this spring, six oxbows have been restored in these two watersheds. These restorations create a total of more than six acres of new habitat for the Topeka shiner, said McKinney. Another four restorations are scheduled for this winter.

Although rather ugly in the process, this oxbow will become ideal habitat for the Topeka shiner, an endangered minnow that thrives in these backwater areas. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Asociation)

Saving the bees

The rusty patched bumble bee, listed as endangered since 2017, will also benefit from more available habitat. This bee emerges very early in the spring and stays active through late fall. It is crucial to have a diverse mixture of flowering plants to provide food sources and habitat during these times. Declining habitat, including early blooming plants, have contributed to the reduction of rusty patched bumble bee populations.

Syngenta and ISA have partnered with Conservation Blueprint to create seed mixtures that consist of up to 50 native pollinator plants ranging from forbs to grasses.

“The rusty patched bumble bee is a generalist pollinator species,” said Pete Berthelsen, Conservation Blueprint president. “So, the more diverse we can be with the seed mixture, the more we can benefit the rusty patched bumble bee. And that philosophy works to benefit all kinds of pollinators: native bees, monarch butterflies, grassland songbirds, pheasants and quail.”

Working with farmers and landowners, ISA has planted two sites this spring with another eight locations undergoing site preparation to be planted this fall. All the sites are on non-production ground and will be converted to areas of highly diverse plantings for pollinators. The targeted restoration sites for the rusty patched bumble bee are located in the central and eastern parts of Iowa and are based on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife priority areas.

 “We are very strategic with the seed mixtures, making sure they flower continually from the first of May to the end of September,” Berthelsen said.  “The other benefit of a highly diverse mixture is, whether it’s a wet or a dry year or a hot or cold year, something is always going to perform well.”

Conservation Blueprint treats every area of habitat individually. Working with the landowner, Berthelsen develops a pollinator seed mixture based on their goals, whether there is a resource concern such as soil erosion they want addressed, soil type and budget. All of these factors must be considered and that makes every project unique, he said.

Helping monarchs, too

The monarch butterfly has recently received a lot of attention as its population numbers have dwindled to nearly endangered levels. Efforts across the country have been made to increase milkweed plant numbers for this iconic butterfly’s habitat to keep it off the federally endangered list.  According to Berthelsen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release their recommendation on the monarch’s status in June, followed by a one-year comment period. Conservation Blueprint’s seed mixes also include several milkweed species, which the monarch caterpillar needs for its eggs and food supply.

These projects are a partnership of ISA, Syngenta and several federal and state agencies to maximize the ecosystem benefits of non-cropped areas.

Corey McKinney also contributed to this story. Contact Corey at

Contact Carol Brown at

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.