The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today designated just over 175 river miles, including 9,924 acres, as protected critical habitat for the threatened trispot darter in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
“The only way to save species like the trispot darter is to protect the places they call home,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“This colorful little fish needs something we all need, clean water and healthy streams, so we celebrate this designation of critical habitat.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, Alabama Rivers Alliance and allies petitioned for trispot darter protection in 2010 and sued to have the Service protect it in 2015.
The trispot darter has been lost from 80% of its range. It was thought to be extinct in Alabama for more than 50 years until it was found in Little Canoe Creek in 2008.
The fish is found in the Coosa River watershed in northern Alabama, northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. It also lives in the Conasauga River watershed, above the confluence with the Coosawattee River in Georgia and Tennessee.
Of the four waterways where it survives — Little Canoe Creek Basin, Ballplay Creek Basin, Conasauga River Basin and Coosawattee River Basin — only the Little Canoe Creek population is considered to be moderately healthy. The other three populations are in poor condition.
The trispot darter is unique from other darters because it acts like a tiny salmon, migrating upstream annually from the larger rivers where it spends most of its life to small tributaries and seeps to spawn. Culverts, dams and other modifications can block its passage.
The species is threatened by urban sprawl, since stormwater runoff from development degrades the water quality it needs to survive. It’s also threatened by runoff from logging and agriculture, by dams and by drought. The fish’s habitat becomes unsuitable when silt and sediment fill in the spaces between rocks, burying the spaces it needs for shelter and egg-laying.
The proposed critical habitat is in Big Canoe, Ballplay, Mill and Coahulla creeks, and in the Conasauga and Coosawattae rivers in Etowah, Cherokee, Calhoun, St. Clair, Whitfield, Murray, Polk, Bradley and Murray counties. Critical habitat designation requires managers of any federal project to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure the darter’s habitat is not harmed.
The trispot darter was first identified as needing federal protection in 1982. The Center sued the Service in 2015 to get a legally binding date for a decision on its protection.
The fish grows to about 1.5 inches long and eats midge-fly larvae. It is eaten, in turn, by black bass and other large fish prized by anglers.
Freshwater species are being lost to extinction at 1,000 times the natural background extinction rate due to dams, pollution, climate change and the ever-increasing use of water to meet the demands of human population growth.
The Southeast is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the country, but the region has recently lost more than 50 of those freshwater species to extinction.