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A tiny beige fish with three vertical stripes along its back
Information icon An adult trispot darter measures less than two inches; the measure shown here is in centimeters. Photo by USFWS.

For the love of a darter: partners promote a fishy courtship

Nestled in the rolling hills of St. Clair County, Alabama, is a small, unassuming stream that is getting a lot of attention these days. This intermittent stream is a small tributary to Little Canoe Creek which appears to be no different than many others in the area. In fact, it doesn’t even have flowing water during most of the year.

However, this one is special, at least from a conservation standpoint. The stream is a known hotspot of activity for a tiny, federally protected fish, the trispot darter.

The darter, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, historically inhabited streams in the upper and middle Coosa River Basin in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Over time, populations declined, so much so that for 50 years it was believed to have gone extinct in Alabama. Then in 2008, a team of biologists led by the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) found a specimen in a St. Clair County stream.

Since that discovery, wide-ranging surveys have revealed trispot darters in a few streams in St. Clair and Cherokee counties. One such location is the aforementioned stream in St. Clair County, identified by GSA as “Site 13”.

Fish surveys and hydrologic evaluations have been conducted at Site 13 and other locations to gain a better understanding of the darter. New information and data from these surveys is being used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program to help identify priority areas for on-the-ground habitat conservation efforts. The Partners program works with private landowners to conserve and protect habitat for federally listed, at-risk, and other trust resource species.

In August of 2019, the stars aligned and a year-and-a-half long project planning effort came to fruition. The project was a result of extensive planning and numerous discussions between the Partners program, species experts, engineers, and the landowner, Alabama Power. Fortunately for the trispot darter, Alabama Power was already implementing forestry best management practices to help conserve and protect the stream and its habitat at Site 13. So, when Partners staff approached Alabama Power about an opportunity to further enhance habitat for the darter, it was an easy decision for the utility.

While the darters were already utilizing Site 13 for romantic courtships, they still encountered a major obstacle in their pursuit of love in the form of two steel culverts. The culverts, at the intersection of a road and the stream, could not properly handle the stream flow nor allow the fish to move upstream to spawn. The solution was to build a small bridge.

A culvert under a dirt road prevents water from naturally flowing
Old culverts in the road made passage very difficult for the trispot darter. Photo by USFWS.

On a hot, humid Monday morning in August, the roar of a semi-truck could be heard slowly creeping along the unimproved road. Eventually, the truck, carrying a pre-fabricated bridge and associated components, arrived at its final destination. After four fast-paced days, the Alabama Power and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service construction team completed installation of the new bridge and the stream flowed unimpeded once again.

A bridge restores the stream's natural flow
The new bridge from Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Alabama Power restored the natural flow of the stream, benefitting the aquatic animals that depend on it. Photo courtesy of Chad Fitch/Alabama Power.

“This bridge restores the stream to a more natural condition and will allow trispot darters to easily move through the area,” said Chad Fitch, Senior Environmental Affairs Specialist at Alabama Power. “Our partners brought their expertise and passion for conservation to this project and we will continue to play a role in the recovery of the species.”

Trispot darters have already been confirmed migrating upstream of the bridge.

“Alabama Power’s partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies is valuable and allows us to team up in ways to ensure confidence that our expertise, resources, and approach promote conservation of rare species such as the trispot darter,” Fitch said.

“Removal of the barrier at Site 13 accomplished two significant habitat needs: the enhancement of upstream access and restoration of natural stream flow patterns,” said Dr. Pat O’Neil, retired Deputy Director of the Geological Survey of Alabama. Additional partners on this project included Cawaco Resource and Development Council, CONTECH® Engineered Solutions, the Service’s Fish Passage Program, and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

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. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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