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A small fish with brown and white spots swimming in front of small rocks.
Information icon Trispot darter. Photo by Dick Biggins, USFWS.

Final listing of the trispot darter, proposed 4(d) rule, proposed critical habitat

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

Based on a review of the best available information and full status assessment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is listing the trispot darter as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Service is also proposing a 4(d) rule and critical habitat.

Check out the press release for this decision.

What does it mean when a species is threatened?

A species may be listed in one of two categories: endangered or threatened. An endangered animal or plant is one that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A threatened animal or plant is one that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The Service is proposing to designate the trispot darter as threatened.

What does the trispot darter look like?

The trispot darter is a small-bodied fish with a complete lateral line, single anal spine, and scaled cheeks. Adult males and females range in size from 1.3 to 1.6 inches, and the body is slender to moderately stout. The darter has three prominent black dorsal saddles, pale undersurface, and a dark bar below the eye. Scattered dark blotches exist on the fin rays. During breeding season, males are a reddish-orange color and have green marks along their sides and a red band through their spiny dorsal fin.

Where does the trispot darter live and what unique characteristics does it require of its environment for survival?

The trispot darter is known to occur in Little Canoe Creek and tributaries (including Gin Branch), Ballplay Creek tributaries, Conasauga River and tributaries (including Holly, Coahulla, and Mill (Georgia) creeks, and a Mill Creek (Tennessee) tributary,) and Coosawattee River and a tributary (including Salacoa Creek).

Non-breeding habitat is small to medium river margins and lower reaches of tributaries with slower water flow and is associated with plant matter, logs, small cobbles, pebbles, gravel and often a fine layer of silt.

Breeding sites are seasonally wet seepage areas and or ditches with little to no flow, shallow depths, moderate leaf litter covering mixed cobble, gravel, sand, clay and emergent vegetation.

A map showing range in Northeast Alabama, Norhtwest Georgia, and Southern Tennessee
Trispot darter current and historic range. Map by USFWS.

What do trispot darters eat?

They mainly eat fly larvae and pupae (an insect in its immature form between larva and adult), as well as mayfly nymphs.

Where was the trispot darter found before it became a threatened species?

The trispot darter has a historical range from the middle to upper Coosa River Basin; specifically, from Cowans Creek, a tributary to the Coosa River, and Johns and Woodward creeks, tributaries to the Oostanaula River.

What prompted the Service to take this action?

On April 20, 2010, the Service received a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and others to list 404 aquatic species including the trispot darter, in the southeastern United States. In response to the petition, the Service completed a partial 90-day finding on Sept. 27, 2011, in which it determined that the petition contained substantial information that a listing may be warranted for the darter. The Service then conducted a status review as a part of the ESA’s 12-month finding process. We published a proposed threatened listing on Oct. 4, 2017, and are now finalizing the threatened listing. Proposing a 4(d) rule outlining activities that would continue to be allowed and a critical habitat designation are the next steps.

What are the criteria for deciding whether to add a species to the endangered and threatened species list?

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.

How are those factors determined?

First, biologists conduct a Species Status Assessment (SSA). The SSA is an in-depth review of the species’ biology and threats, an evaluation of its biological status, and an assessment of the resources and conditions needed to maintain long-term viability. The intent is for the SSA to be easily updated as new information becomes available and to support all functions of the Endangered Species Program from candidate assessment to listing to consultations to recovery. The SSA is a living document upon which other documents, such as listing rules, recovery plans and five-year reviews, are based if the species warrants listing under the ESA.

What threats were identified for the trispot darter?

Reduced connectivity

Numerous natural features can limit or prevent fish movement, such as beaver dams and waterfalls, as well as man-made structures that prevent fish movement. Structures installed at road crossings (bridges and culverts), dams, and pipelines all have the potential to act as barriers to fish movement, block exchange of genetic material between populations, increase a population’s vulnerability to local extinction, and prevent recolonization after local extinction has occurred.

A metal culvert allows water to trickle below a road stream crossing
Culverts like this can be a barrier for fish as they swim upstream. (Photo by Alabama Rivers and Streams Network SHU Mapper.

Changes in waterflow

These changes can include increases or decreases in storm flow frequency and intensity and a decrease in base flows. Activities that lead to such changes include reservoir construction and operation, surface water and groundwater withdrawals, and increasing the presence of impervious surfaces - such as paving parking lots, constructing houses and removing trees, all of which are associated with urbanization. A hydropower dam, Carters Dam, exists on the Coosawattee River on the boundary of the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge ecoregions. Hydropeaking is a form of flow regulation that introduces frequent, short-duration, artificial flow events to the river. Non-hydropeaking reservoirs, farm ponds, recreational lakes and other impoundments may substantially alter flows by storing water during low-flow periods. Unlike hydropeaking reservoirs, this somewhat reduces the negative impacts of quickly rising and falling water levels from hydropower generation. However, these types of reservoirs can also reduce base flows, which reduces the habitat available to darters.

Channel modification

Channel modification can include channelization, piping, in-stream construction, in-stream mining and reservoir creation. Channelization includes straightening, deepening or widening of streams and rivers for flood control, drainage improvement, navigation and relocation. Channel modification can lead to a loss of essential trispot habitat components or completely destroy the habitat.


Urbanization is expected to affect the trispot darter because the majority of known darter locations are in close vicinity to growing metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Chattanooga, Birmingham and other cities. Negative effects include increases in stormwater runoff, primarily from an increase in paved surfaces; an increase in chemical runoff like herbicides and pesticides from lawn; and increases in sedimentation from tree removal.

Loss of plants along river margins and stream banks - Removal of these plants can destabilize stream banks, cause increases in stream sedimentation and turbidity, and cause an increase in water temperatures because of the amount of light that is now reaching the water. There are numerous pastures where livestock have access to streams which have been identified as spawning habitat for the trispot darter in the Little Canoe Creek watershed. Livestock accessing these buffers leads to an increased concern for water quality and habitat destruction. Livestock accessing streams also destabilize stream banks which creates increased sediment loads within these small systems.


A wide range of activities can lead to sedimentation within streams including agriculture, construction activities, stormwater runoff, unpaved roads, forestry activities, utility crossings, dredging and even historic land use. Within the range of the trispot darter, sedimentation is occurring due to urban impacts in the Springville, Alabama, and Dalton, Georgia, areas, agricultural practices in the Conasauga River basin and livestock access to streams in the Little Canoe Creek watershed.

Water Quality and Nonpoint Source Pollution


Contaminants, including metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides and other potentially harmful organic and inorganic compounds, are common in urban streams and may be partially responsible for the absence of sensitive fish in those systems. These include wastewater treatment plants, mines and industrial facilities. Non-point sources are more difficult to pinpoint. Pesticides are frequently found in streams draining agricultural lands, with herbicides being the most commonly detected.

Poultry Litter

Poultry litter is a mixture of chicken manure, feathers, spilled food and bedding material that frequently is used to fertilize pastureland or row crops. A broiler house containing 20,000 birds will produce approximately 150 tons of litter a year. Surface-spreading of litter allows runoff from heavy rains to carry nutrients from manure into nearby streams. Repeated or over-application of poultry litter also can result in phosphorus buildup in the soil.

Because of these threats, the trispot darter survives in only four of the 12 watersheds where it was known to occur historically.

What is critical habitat?

Designating critical habitat under the ESA does not affect private landowners unless the action involves federal funds, permits or other federal activities. Establishing critical habitat will raise awareness of the needs of the trispot darter and other imperiled species and focus the efforts of our conservation partners. It also alerts federal agencies that they are required to make special conservation efforts when they work, fund or permit activities in those areas. It does not set up a preserve or refuge, but it may require special management considerations in the identified areas. The final decision to designate critical habitat will be based on the best scientific information available.

Where is the proposed critical habitat?

The proposed critical habitat designation for the trispot darter consists of 181 stream miles and 16,735 acres of occupied spawning habitat. The states of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee own the navigable waterways within their boundaries, and the spawning habitat is privately owned.

Unit 1: Big Canoe Creek

Unit 1 consists of 41 stream miles in St. Clair County, Alabama, from 3.5 miles upstream of Pinedale Road, west of Ashville, Alabama, to U.S. Hwy. 11. Unit 1 also includes the westernmost Little Canoe Creek to State Highway 174 and all of its associated tributaries.

Unit 2: Ballplay Creek

Unit 2 consists of 17 stream miles in Etowah, Cherokee and Calhoun counties, Alabama, and 2,527 acres of spawning habitat. The trispot darter occupies the unit and it currently supports all breeding, feeding and sheltering needs for the species. Unit 2 begins upstream of a wetland complex located at the border between Etowah and Cherokee counties at County Road 32 and continues upstream approximately to the U.S. Hwy. 278 crossing over Ballplay Creek in Calhoun County, Alabama.

Unit 3: Conasauga River

Unit 3 consists of 57 stream miles and 2,161 acres wetland spawning habitat in Whitfield and Murray counties, Georgia, and Polk and Bradley counties, Tennessee. It begins in the Conasauga River upstream of the mouth of Coahulla Creek and continues upstream to the mouth of Minneawuaga Creek. Unit 4also includes: Mill Creek from its confluence with the Conasuaga River in Bradley County, Tennessee, upstream to the first impoundment on Mill Creek approximately at Green Shadow Road SE; Old Fort Creek from Ladd Springs Road SE in Polk County, Tennessee, to its confluence with Mill Creek in Bradley County, Tennessee; and all of Perry Creek.

Unit 4: Mill Creek

Unit 4 consists of 15 stream miles and 438 acres of spawning habitat in Murray County, Georgia. The land surrounding the river in this unit is both privately owned and city owned. The trispot darter occupies the unit and it currently supports all breeding, feeding and sheltering needs for the species. Unit 4 begins in Mill Creek at its confluence with Coahulla Creek and continues upstream for approximately 15 miles to the US Highway 41 crossing over Mill Creek.

Unit 5: Coahulla Creek

Unit 5 consists of 26 stream miles and 1,442 acres of spawning habitat in Whitfield County, Georgia, and Bradley County, Tennessee. Unit 5 begins immediately upstream of the Prater Mill dam upstream of GA Highway 2. It continues upstream for approximately 26 miles to Ramsey Bridge Road SE and includes wetland habitat from half a mile downstream of Hopewell Road to approximately half a mile upstream of McGaughey Chapel Road. The land surrounding the river in this unit is privately owned.

Unit 6: Coosawattee River

Unit 6 consists of 25 stream miles beginning at the confluence of the Coosawattee River and the Conasauga River in Gordon County, Georgia. It continues to Old Highway 411 downstream of Carter’s Lake Reregulation Dam in Murray County, Georgia. The land surrounding the river in this unit is a mix of state, private and Army Corps of Engineers property.

A map showing all six units, four in Northern Alabama/Southern Tennessee and two in Central Alabama.
Proposed critical habitat units for the trispot darter. Map by USFWS.

What is a 4(d) rule?

For a threatened animal, the Service may use flexibility provided under Section 4(d) of the ESA to tailor the take prohibitions to those that provide conservation benefits for the species; referred to as a 4(d) rule. The ESA allows for 4(d) rules that are “necessary and advisable” for the conservation of the species. This targeted approach can reduce ESA conflicts by allowing some activities that do not significantly harm the species to continue, while focusing our efforts on the threats that slow the species recovery. These customized protections of the ESA minimize the regulatory burden while maximizing the likelihood of recovery of a threatened plant or animal.

How will the proposed 4(d) rule apply to the trispot darter’s habitat?

The proposed 4(d) rule would allow flexibilities for the following actions:

  • Conservation actions and stream restoration that promote water quality and connectivity; -Transportation projects that provide for fish passage at stream crossings; -Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife projects in the range of this species. -Forestry activities guided by best management practices that forest landowners in many cases are already implementing. -What will this listing mean for poultry farmers? -We anticipate no new regulations for poultry farmers. Instead, they are encouraged to follow best management practices that are already in place.

How can I submit a comment?

The public is invited to submit written comments and information on the proposed critical habitat rule and/or proposed 4d rule by February 26, 2019, 60 days after the proposals’ publication in the Federal Register. Comments may be submitted by:

  1. online at by entering one of the three docket numbers below in the search box and then clicking on “Comment Now”; or
  2. mail or hand deliver to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Comments Processing, Attn: docket number(s) (see below), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing within 45 days by February 11, 2019, to the Falls Church, VA, address.

All relevant information received during the open comment period from the public, government agencies, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties will be considered and addressed in the Service’s final critical habitat and 4(d) rules for the trispot darter.

Docket numbers

  1. Final listing rule: FWS-R4-ES-2017-0063
  2. Proposed critical habitat rule: FWS-R4-ES-2018-0073
  3. Proposed 4d rule: FWS-R4-ES-2018-0074

How will my comments be used?

All relevant information received during the open comment period from the public, government agencies, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties will be considered and addressed in the Service’s final listing determination for the trispot darter.

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