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A bright green irrodescent fish in a small blue net.
Information icon Barrens topminnows are small, colorful fish that live only in a few springs and creeks in central Tennessee. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the fish as endangered. Photo by Emily Granstaff, USFWS.

A boost in the Barrens

Partners for Fish and Wildlife works with cattle company to improve habitat for topminnows, darters and mussels

Barrens topminnows are small, colorful fish about four inches long, and the males are particularly showy during spawning season. Barrens darters are even smaller, and they are believed to be one of the rarest fish in North America. Cumberland pigtoes are mussels with mahogany shells and peach interiors.

The fish and mussels are struggling to survive in the only place they live: the creeks and watersheds in a little part of Tennessee called the Barrens, midway between Nashville and Chattanooga. They need all the help they can get. Enter Partners for Fish and Wildlife, a program funded and staffed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Clean, clear-running water is essential for their survival, but that’s not what they were getting a few years ago in one parcel of land in Coffee County. Hundreds of head of cattle at a livestock operation were trampling down riverbanks to get to streams in the Hickory Creek watershed for drinking water, clogging the streams with dirt and sediment, and polluting them with manure.

Two cows look on at a low-lying stream degraded by manure
Several years ago, cattle could wade through streams in the Barrens where aquatic wildlife was struggling to survive. Partners for Fish and Wildlife worked with the landowner to fix the problem. Photo by USFWS.

“Mussels in particular are very sensitive to water quality issues,” said Bryan Watkins, the Partners state coordinator in the Service’s Cookeville, Tennessee, office. “Any time you have a large amount of sediment, it creates a problem first for the mussels. Then other issues begin such as limited spawning habitat for fish.”

“It was the magnitude at which it was happening that made the problem so severe,” added Emily Granstaff, a Partners private lands biologist also based in Cookeville. “The Cumberland pigtoe is an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and the Service has proposed listing the Barrens topminnow as endangered as well.”

Fortuntately, Bryan Livestock was receptive to a pitch from Partners for Fish and Wildlife.

“We approached them through our partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a Department of Agriculture agency,” said Watkins. “They were very accepting of our proposal and could see the benefits for everyone — the cattle, the company, and the wildlife we are trying to protect.”

Starting in 2013, Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Bryan Livestock joined forces for a series of improvements, with the Service paying 80 percent and Bryan 20 percent. That included 11 miles of fencing to keep cattle from trampling down into the stream, and relocating the cattle’s watering sources to higher ground, away from the streams, with alternative watering facilities. Those watering facilities mean Bryan Livestock’s cows got cleaner, more dependable water sources for their cattle.

A stream with new fencing installed on either bank
After Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Bryan Farms fenced off streams and made other improvements, the water quality improved tremendously, which led to better habitat in general for wildlife in the area. Photo by USFWS.

The work was finished in 2018, and the biologists can already see a big improvement in water quality. “We see places that used to be nothing but mud with a very limited amount of aquatic life now flourishing with different fish and amphibians,” said Watkins. “There has been a significant biological change.”

And the change has spread beyond the 1,800 acres of Bryan Livestock. The land where partners were working to improve conditions for the endangered wildlife is bisected by a highway, and other local landowners saw the improvements being made and got interested.

“I know of three other projects like this that were completed just because of word of mouth in the community,” Watkins said. “Most folks want to do what’s best for the land and their livestock. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help Bryan Livestock while also helping these three species.”


Phil Kloer, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-7299

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