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A light purple salamander with dark spots and tufts above its front legs.
Information icon Black Warrior waterdog. Photo by Joseph Jenkins, Alabama Natural Heritage Program.

Final listing, critical habitat designation and draft economic analysis for the Black Warrior waterdog

What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) taking?

Based on a review of the best available information and a full species status assessment, the Service is listing the Black Warrior waterdog as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service is proposing to designate 420 river miles of critical habitat in four units.

What does it mean when a species is endangered?

Species are listed under the ESA in one of two categories: endangered or threatened. An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The Service is designating the Black Warrior waterdog as endangered.

What are the criteria for deciding whether to add a species to the ESA?

A species is added to the list when it is determined to be endangered or threatened because of the following factors:

  • The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range.
  • Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
  • Disease or predation.
  • The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.
  • Other natural manmade factors affecting its survival.

What does the Black Warrior waterdog look like?

The Black Warrior waterdog is a large, aquatic, nocturnal salamander that retains a larval form and external gills throughout its life. Its head and body are depressed, its tail is compressed laterally, and it has four toes on each of its four feet. Larval Black Warrior waterdogs (one to two inches in length) are dark brown or black on their upper surface and have two light stripes running along their sides.

Adults may reach a maximum of 9 ½ inches in length. Sub-adults are 1 ½ to four inches in length, do not have the stripes that are present on larvae, and are not conspicuously marked, although they do have a dark stripe extending from the nostril through the eye to the gills. Adults are usually brown, may be spotted or unspotted, and retain the dark eye stripe. The lower surface of all ages is plain white.

Where does the Black Warrior waterdog live, and what characteristics does it require of its environment for survival?

The Black Warrior waterdog is only found in streams within the Black Warrior River Basin, in Alabama.

Black Warrior waterdogs depend on specific stream habitats for normal life processes such as breeding, rearing, protection of young, refuge for adults when threatened, foraging and feeding. Preferred habitats are dominated by clay or bedrock with little sand, also containing abundant rock crevices and rock slabs for shelter and areas for egg laying. Little is currently known about the Black Warrior waterdog’s life history.

What does the Black Warrior waterdog eat?

Larval and adult Black Warrior waterdogs are assumed to be opportunistic carnivores, however prey taken in the wild has not been described. Captive Black Warrior waterdogs have eaten small fish and earthworms.

Where was the Black Warrior waterdog found before it was proposed as an endangered species?

There are a total of 11 historical records from sites in Blount, Tuscaloosa, Jefferson, and Winston Counties, Alabama. Black Warrior waterdog habitat is similar to that of the threatened flattened musk turtle, a threatened species that occupies an almost identical range restricted to permanent streams above the fall line in the Black Warrior Basin.

Where is the Black Warrior waterdog found now, and where could I see it?

The waterdog is most abundant in Bankhead National Forest, which includes Brushy Creek and Sipsey Fork in Winston County. They can also be found in Browns Creek (a tributary in the Black Water Creek in Winston and Walker Counties), and in Yellow Creek in Tuscaloosa County.

What are the primary threats to the waterdog?

Water quality degradation is likely one of the biggest threats to the continued existence of the Black Warrior waterdog, and is considered the primary reason for the disappearance of this species from much of its historical range. Because of their highly permeable skin and external gills, waterdogs are particularly sensitive to declines in water quality and oxygen concentration. Sources of pollution in the basin have been numerous and widespread, and include runoff from industrial plants, landfills, sewage treatment plants, construction, and surface mining.

What is critical habitat?

The Service identifies critical habitat when it proposes to list an animal or plant for listing as endangered or threatened. Critical habitat, a term defined in the ESA, is identified based on what an animal or plant needs to survive and reproduce by reviewing the best scientific information concerning a species’ present and historical ranges, habitat and biology.

The designation of critical habitat helps ensure that federal agencies and the public are aware of the habitat needs of the Black Warrior waterdog, and proper consultation is conducted by federal agencies when required by law.

What does a critical habitat designation do?

When an area is designated as critical habitat for a listed species, federal agencies are required by law to ensure that any action they fund, authorize or carry out is not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the habitat. This is carried out through consultation with the Service. This only affects projects that need a federal permit or are being paid for with federal tax dollars.

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. A critical habitat designation also does not allow the government or public to access private lands, nor does it require implementation of restoration, recovery or enhancement measures by non-federal landowners.

There should be little or no impact on agricultural or timber companies, private landowners, or residential development. These stakeholders are already required to follow specific Best Management Practices (BMPs) by Alabama that protect water quality and prevent forms of pollution like excessive amounts of sediment from entering streams. The Service relies on a number of voluntary, non-regulatory conservation programs to provide willing landowners with assurances to protect them for the work they do on their lands.

Are there conservation partnerships underway on behalf of the waterdog?

Alabama Power Company has and continues to be proactive in helping conserve the waterdog by assisting with surveys and implementing a Shoreline Management Plan on one of their reservoirs where the salamander is found. Although this plan is geared toward the flattened musk turtle, it also benefits the waterdog by protecting the best shoreline habitats.

What will this listing mean for the forestry and coal mining community?

There should be minimal or no impact on the forestry and coal mining community. The Alabama forestry community has specific guidelines known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) to help the forestry community maintain and protect the physical, chemical and biological integrity of waters of the state as required by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act,the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act, and the Coastal Zone Management Act. The BMPs lay out a framework of sound stewardship that contributes positively to maintaining a high degree of water quality flowing from a forest. Since these guidelines are already in place, the listing will have very little effect on forestry practices.

Similar to forestry, the coal industry also has specific permit requirements in place like National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits (under the Clean Water Act requirement) that ensure water quality is meeting its designated use classification. The pollution from coal mining is no longer ongoing, and since there are already critical habitat designations for other species in this area, very little additional regulatory mechanisms will be requested for the Black Warrior waterdog. When an area is designated as critical habitat for a listed species, federal agencies are required by law to ensure that any action they fund, authorize or carry out is not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of the habitat.

We will continue to work with landowners, developers, agencies and other partners to develop proactive conservation practices to help conserve the Black Warrior waterdog and its habitat. For example, Alabama Power Company has been and continues to be proactive by assisting with waterdog surveys (including eDNA) and implementing a Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) on one of their reservoirs where the waterdog occurs. Although this SMP is geared towards the flattened musk turtle, it also provides benefits for the waterdog by protecting the best shoreline habitats from poor development practices.

What areas are proposed as critical habitat for the Black Warrior waterdog?

The Service is designating critical habitat in four units, all within the historical range of the Black Warrior waterdog. The designation is comprised of four tributaries within the Black Warrior River Basin; Sipsey Fork (Lawrence and Winston Counties); Locust Fork (Blount, Etowah, Jefferson, and Marshall Counties); Blackwater Creek (Walker and Winston Counties); and Yellow Creek (Tuscaloosa County). There is no unoccupied habitat included in this final decision.

TABLE 1. Occupancy of Black Warrior waterdog by critical habitat units and existing overlapping critical habitat designation for Federally listed species.

Unit Location Occupied Private Ownership rkm/rmi Federal Ownership rkm/rmi Existing CH rkm/rmi Total Length rkm/rmi
1 Yellow Creek Yes 3019 3019
2 Locust Fork Yes 391243 10163 391243
3 Blackwater Creek Yes 12880 12880
4 Sipsey Fork Yes 117 11371 10364 12478
TOTALS 560349 11371 204127 673420
A map highlighting critical habitat stretches in north central Alabama.
Critical habitat for the Black Warrior waterdog. Map by USFWS.
A map depicting this salamanders historical range in northwestern Alabama.
Black Warrior waterdog’s historical range. Map by Drew Rollman, USFWS.

How did the Service select these units for critical habitat? 

The Service looked to see where the Black Warrior waterdog was known to occur based on collections and reports, referred to as the historical range. Then, we determined whether the potential critical habitat designation contains physical or biological features that provide for a species’ life history processes and are essential for its conservation. Finally, we examined the bodies of water that are occupied by the waterdog.

Is there already existing critical habitat in the Black Warrior River Basin?

Yes, there are 165 existing river miles of critical habitat for seven freshwater mussels. There also are 26 federally-listed species in the basin, including 15 aquatic species (freshwater fish, reptiles and mollusks). The new designation will overlap 127 river miles of the existing critical habitat.

What features or elements were identified as important to Black Warrior waterdog?

Physical features such as, rocks, submerged ledges, and other structures play an important role in determining habitat suitability for the waterdog. One of the most important habitat features is the presence of semi-permanent leaf packs. These provide both shelter and foraging habitat for larvae and adult waterdogs. The habitat of the Black Warrior waterdog is similar to the flattened musk turtle, and the two overlap in geographic range.

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