Conservation efforts for threatened or endangered species are challenging because the multi-scale factors that relate to their decline or inhibit their recovery are often unknown. To further exacerbate matters, the perceptions associated with the mechanisms of species decline are often viewed myopically rather than across the entire species range. We used over 80 years of fish presence data collected from the Great Plains and associated ecoregions of the United States, to investigate the relative influence of changing environmental factors on the historic and current truncated distributions of the Arkansas River shiner Notropis girardi. Arkansas River shiner represent a threatened reproductive ecotype considered especially well adapted to the harsh environmental extremes of the Great Plains. Historic (n = 163 records) and current (n = 47 records) species distribution models were constructed using a vector-based approach in MaxEnt by splitting the available data at a time when Arkansas River shiner dramatically declined. Discharge and stream order were significant predictors in both models; however, the shape of the relationship between the predictors and species presence varied between time periods. Drift distance (river fragment length available for ichthyoplankton downstream drift before meeting a barrier) was a more important predictor in the current model and indicated river segments 375–780 km had the highest probability of species presence. Performance for the historic and current models was high (area under the curve; AUC > 0.95); however, forecasting and backcasting to alternative time periods suggested less predictive power. Our results identify fragments that could be considered refuges for endemic plains fish species and we highlight significant environmental factors (e.g., discharge) that could be manipulated to aid recovery.