Yazoo darter habitat conservation on working lands in Mississippi
Making partnerships work for imperiled species on a small town family farm
Water Valley, Mississippi – The Reid farm, approximately 400 acres in size, is a typical family owned row crop operation in northeast Mississippi. The farm is located just off Highway 315 a few miles away from the picturesque town of Water Valley. The primary crops produced here are soybeans, corn, and potatoes. The countryside mostly consists of rolling hills of loblolly pine and hardwood drainages with cattle pastures and row crop agricultural fields widely interspersed. This particular farm is bisected by a drainage called Mill Creek. To the amazement of the landowners, their little creek is home to a very important little fish called the Yazoo darter.
The Yazoo darter is a small snubnose darter endemic to the Little Tallahatchie and Yocona River Basins in North-Central Mississippi. They are found in small, clear streams with varying substrate including sand, silt, clay and gravel. The species is classified as vulnerable by the Southeastern Fisheries Council and American Fisheries Society, globally imperiled by the Nature Conservancy, sensitive by the USDA Forest Service, and as a Tier 1 species of greatest concern by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks. Populations are fragmented due to habitat degradation and fish passage barriers. Yazoo darters in the Little Tallahatchie River basin are more stable than in the Yocona basin. Populations in the Yocona are declining more rapidly, have lower genetic diversity, have a greater loss of habitat due to construction and agriculture and have a greater chance of being extirpated from certain tributaries. Mill Creek is a tributary within the Yocona watershed.
When I first met with the Reid family to discuss the potential of working with them to enhance the habitat for the Yazoo Darter, they were amazed that the drainage “ditch” running through their farm had such an important fish species swimming around. They were eager to do anything possible to help conserve the little fish as long as farming operations could continue uninterrupted. Collaborating with the Reid family, we seamlessly integrate a habitat restoration plan for the darter while maintaining the productivity of their working lands. Through trust and hard work a partnership was formed with the Reid family, who has taken great pride in the fact that they are helping conserve the little darter that prior to our meeting they did not even know they had.
After my initial meeting with the landowners, the partnership to restore and enhance the darter habitat in Mill Creek has grown considerably. Partners on the project now include: The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lower Mississippi River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mississippi Ecological Services Field Office, and the U.S. Forest Service. The landowners have entered into an agreement with the Mississippi Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to address the Yazoo darter’s habitat needs within the section of Mill Creek under their ownership.
Currently, there is a fish passage issue with Mill Creek due to an elevated box culvert where the creek flows under Highway 315. This problem will be rectified by instream modifications to the creek channel.
Habitat improvement underway/planned includes eliminating soil erosion from defunct gullies, streambank stabilization, and the establishment of a 50 ft wide riparian habitat on either side of Mill Creek. Fisheries biologists from collaborating agencies have conducted Yazoo darter sampling prior to implementing the restoration plan. Sampling will occur again at the conclusion of the project to help determine the effectiveness of the habitat restoration. The construction phase of the project will begin once the crops are harvested in late summer. The Reid family has agreed to allow me to use their farm in the future as a demonstration area to train other landowners within the Yocona watershed on measures to conserve Yazoo darter habitat. This habitat partnership is an excellent example of how wildlife professionals from many agencies can work with families who own small farms to conserve imperiled wildlife on working lands.
Jeffrey Lee, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Biologist
Jeffrey_lee@fws.gov, (601) 201-0904
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