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Anglers, you may be contributing to the degradation of our Ozark streams, but a simple change in the way you handle live bait can help protect the resources we rely on for recreation.

The Missouri Department of Conservation just added the Spring River crayfish and the coldwater crayfish to the state's endangered species list. According to MDC, these are two of eight species of crayfish found only in Missouri.

“Crayfish play a vital role in water quality,” the MDC states on its website. “Crayfish also serve as prey for more than 200 species of insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. They are the desired food for many popular game fish and the most important food for smallmouth bass and goggle-eye.”

Crayfish — or crawdads — are a favorite live bait for the smallmouth that is one of our most feisty and sought-after Ozark gamefish. But if you aren’t careful, your bait and the way you dispose of it after a day of fishing can actually hurt the system that supports your fishing.

For example, the Spring River crayfish lives on a stretch of the South Fork of the Spring River in Howell County near the Arkansas border. The Spring River crayfish used to make up 25% of the crayfish population in those waters. Three recent surveys found none in the Missouri section of the stream, though some still are found on the Arkansas side.

Why have they become so rare? Silting in the river and low flow during periods of drought are contributors to the loss of population, but the most preventable cause is introduced into these waters by anglers.

Invasive crayfish are introduced by fishermen who bring them as bait and then release them into the stream at the end of their fishing trip. These invaders grow larger, feed more and are more aggressive than native crayfish.

So you can help restore these Missouri natives in our Ozark waters.

Don’t dump purchased bait. Releasing purchased live bait can introduce invasive species and is a violation of Missouri’s Wildlife Code.

If you catch your bait, catch it in the same system in which you are going to fish. If you have leftover wild-caught bait, return it to the body of water from which it came.

Anglers have long played an essential role in the stewardship of our Ozark landscape, waterways and wildlife. That is a noble tradition worthy of maintaining. Don't let your bait crawdads go, or we might see our native crawdads gone.

Let’s ensure our streams remain treasures for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

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