Meagan Racey, 413-253-8558, firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the fast-flowing streams of Virginia and West Virginia’s upper Kanawha River Basin, and you might be lucky enough to witness flashes of teal, red and orange from the minnow-like candy darter. But with the latest data indicating a declining trend for the species, this vibrant freshwater fish could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Following a review of the best available scientific information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the candy darter as threatened under the ESA. Nearly half of the 35 candy darter populations known when the species was first described in 1932 have now disappeared.
“The candy darter has been called one of our country’s most vivid freshwater fish, and all signs suggest its future is threatened,” said Dr. Paul Phifer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast assistant regional director. “Federal, state, and university partners are already at work to conserve the species, and we look forward to collaborating with industry and local partners to explore additional conservation opportunities.”
Candy darter habitat historically declined when land conversion activities removed the forested and riparian habitat that sustained healthy stream conditions for the fish. Biologists are now most concerned about the significant negative consequences of the candy darter breeding with an introduced species, the variegate darter.
Variegate darters were once blocked by the Kanawha Falls from naturally traveling upstream into candy darter populations. But in the late 20th century, variegate darters were introduced above the falls, possibly as a result of unused bait (which can consist of live fish) being dumped into streams and rivers, a once common practice that is now discouraged.
These two closely related, short-lived species can successfully mate, resulting in fertile hybrid offspring. Both fish have a lifespan of 2-3 years, and after multiple, quickly successive generations of interbreeding, candy darter genes are being diluted out of the population. As a result, several candy darter populations have disappeared, and biologists estimate all populations in the Greenbrier River watershed in southeastern West Virginia may be hybridized within ten years.
While hybridization between candy and variegate darters continues in certain rivers, large dams prevent the natural spread of variegate darters into 10 remaining candy darter populations in the Upper Gauley, Middle New and Upper New River watersheds. Preventing the transfer of live baitfish into these watersheds is vital to the continued existence of candy darters in these areas.
“In Virginia, we have the chance to get ahead of hybridization in our candy darter strongholds," said Mike Pinder, State Fish Diversity Biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “We're taking steps including research that will allow us to more quickly detect the presence of the competitive variegate darter, and are exploring other ways to avoid the introduction of this species where the candy darter still occurs.”
The States of Virginia and West Virginia both consider the candy darter to be a species of greatest conservation need in their state wildlife action plans.
"Passing wildlife laws alone cannot protect our native fauna," said Dan Cincotta of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "It is imperative to inform the public, especially anglers, about the negative impacts associated with moving species into new environments."
Darters are an integral part of Eastern freshwater stream environments and help other wildlife by transporting freshwater mussel larvae and becoming food for larger species. Many darter species require clean waters, making them a useful biological indicator of stream health.
Several candy darter populations are in streams flowing through lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service, including places like the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest, which is a stronghold for the Virginia population. In West Virginia and Virginia, the Forest Service has designated the candy darter as a sensitive species and protects its habitat through stream restoration.
“The Monongahela National Forest has been actively engaged in landscape-scale restoration in the Upper Greenbrier watershed, a candy darter stronghold, since 2013,” said Chad Landress, forest fisheries biologist for the Monongahela National Forest. “We have focused on securing and enhancing the viability of this unique cold-water ecosystem, which includes several endemic species, including the candy darter.”
“The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests recognized the need to protect the candy darter, and thereby included it’s habitat in a special management area designed to manage and protect the habitats of rare aquatic species on national forest lands,” added Dawn Kirk, forest fisheries biologist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service invites public comment for 60 days, until December 4, 2017, on the proposed rule at www.regulations.gov under docket # FWS–R5–ES–2017–0056. The proposed rule explains the primary threats to the candy darter’s long-term survival and details what additional information the Service is seeking that would aid the final decision, including information on activities that could be exempted from regulatory requirements (through a process known as a 4(d) rule that customizes ESA protections to a species needs).
Following the comment period, the Service will make a final decision on whether to list the candy darter as endangered or threatened, or to withdraw the proposal, and will implement a 4(d) rule if appropriate. The Service will also assess any new information to determine if it will help in the designation of critical habitat.
For the past 40 years, the ESA has been successful in preventing the extinction of more than 99 percent of listed species. In addition to providing regulatory protections, listing under the ESA raises awareness about the need for coordinating collaborative conservation efforts, enhancing research programs and developing measures to help recover listed species.
Anglers Can Help! Regardless of the final listing determination, anglers can play a key role in candy darter conservation by dumping their unused bait into the trash rather than rivers or streams. Live bait fish can upset natural fish communities and may lead to the decline of some species, including the candy darter.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
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