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An employee in a neon yellow shirt helps guide a heavy machine operator.
Information icon Cory Gullett (USFWS), a member of the Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team, helps to position the new culvert into place as it is lifted by an excavator. Photo by Bryan Watkins, USFWS.

Culvert repair partnership in Tennessee a win-win for landowner, endangered fish

The little laurel dace, which grows to less than two inches long, is a freshwater minnow found in only six small streams on Walden’s Ridge, part of the Cumberland Plateau in central Tennessee.

A greenish brown fish with bright orange markings on its belly and mouth.
The federally endangered laurel dace. Photo by Conservation Fisheries, Inc.

During their breeding season in May and June, both males and females exhibit stunning colors of black, gold, silver, and red. The laurel dace lives in pools and slow runs in clear, cool streams that are surrounded by dense riverbanks covered in mountain laurel.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the fish as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Damaged and degraded culverts and road crossings in rural areas like Walden Ridge can impede water flow and make life difficult for the laurel dace and other aquatic species. Repairing these culverts was once thought to be an expensive endeavor, but new partnerships, such as the Southeast Aquatic Connectivity Program, are helping to achieve more of these repair projects by providing improved tools to project managers. Funding and technical expertise, such as those found in the Service’s National Fish Passage Program and Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team, can assist to reduce costs of these projects for private landowners.

A partially squished culvert under a pile of rocks.
Looking upstream into a partially blocked culvert a few days before the construction of the new road crossing. Photo by Emily Granstaff, USFWS.

Timberland Investment Resources, LLC (TIR), a private land management organization, is the steward of a portion of the forests on Walden’s Ridge where the laurel dace lives. TIR maintains roads and stream crossings on its property. The Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW) collaborated with TIR to replace two undersized culverts that were consistently being clogged by log jams and debris each spring. The culverts were also sometimes acting as a barrier, which prevented the laurel dace and other aquatic organisms from moving upstream and downstream.

TIR, PFW biologists, and the Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team spent five days removing the old culverts, building the larger arch culvert, and placing the new structure into the stream.

The new culvert is a win-win for the management company and the laurel dace. TIR decreases its maintenance costs, because logs and debris move naturally downstream. Meanwhile, the fish moves freely up and down its waterways. It has been one year since the new culvert was installed and the laurel dace has now moved back into this portion of the stream, and there were no log jams in sight.

This project is just one example of how the private forestry industry and aquatic conservation community work together to protect and conserve these unique places. Potential partners are encouraged to contact a PFW biologist if they have a culvert or road crossing that needs repair.


Emily Granstaff, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, (931) 525-4993

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