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A small fish with tan and brown markings blending into the pebble substrate.
Information icon Frecklebelly madtom. Photo by USFWS.

Frecklebelly madtom proposed listing, 4(d) rule and critical habitat frequently asked questions

What is the frecklebelly madtom and where does it occur?

The frecklebelly madtom is a small, stout catfish that inhabits the main channels and tributaries of medium to large river systems in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. The fish has a broad but scattered distribution across the Pearl River and Mobile Basin drainages. Throughout its range, the frecklebelly madtom primarily occupies streams and rivers within the Gulf Coastal Plain province. However, it also occurs in the upland areas of the Ridge and Valley province in the Conasauga River and Piedmont Upland province in the Etowah River.

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

After reviewing the best available peer-reviewed science, we have determined that a distinct population segment of the species, located in the Upper Coosa River, warrants listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with critical habitat. We are also proposing a 4(d) rule which includes exceptions to incidental take prohibitions resulting from projects that may benefit the species.

What is a distinct population segment?

Under the ESA, a distinct population segment (DPS) is a vertebrate population or group of populations that is discrete from other populations of the species and significant in relation to the entire species. After reviewing the best scientific information, we determined that the Upper Coosa River frecklebelly madtom populations (unit) in Georgia and Tennessee represent a DPS and that it warranted listing as a DPS. This DPS occupies the rivers and streams that join to form the Coosa River.

By listing a DPS, the Service applies the ESA’s protections only to the deteriorating portion of a species’ range. Listing distinct population segments allows the Service to protect and conserve species and the ecosystems upon which they depend before a largescale decline occurs that would necessitate the ESA’s protections throughout a species’ entire range.

Why is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposing to list the frecklebelly madtom as threatened?

Poor water quality resulting from land development and agriculture use poses the largest risk to this DPS of the frecklebelly madtom in the Upper Coosa River. These stressors put this DPS at risk of being endangered in the foreseeable future. Other potential stressors include channelization, dams, and impoundments.

Why isn’t the Service proposing to list the entire range as threatened?

The Service prepared a Species Status Assessment, a comprehensive compilation of the best available scientific and commercial information, which was then peer reviewed. We determined that listing the frecklebelly madtom as an endangered or a threatened species throughout all or a significant portion of its entire range is not warranted. However, we found the Upper Coosa River representation unit of the frecklebelly madtom discrete and significant under the DPS policy. After determining this, the Service then evaluated the status of the Upper Coosa River DPS and found that listing is warranted in Georgia and Tennessee. Accordingly, we are proposing to list the Upper Coosa River DPS of the frecklebelly madtom as a threatened species.

What is the proposed critical habitat designation for the frecklebelly madtom?

The proposed critical habitat designation for the Upper Coosa River DPS of the frecklebelly madtom consists of 134 stream miles of occupied habitat in two units in Georgia and Tennessee. Proposed critical habitat does not include riparian areas, only instream habitat to the high water mark. Unit 1 consists of 51.5 stream miles of the Conasauga River beginning from the mouth of Coahulla Creek on the border between Whitfield and Murray counties, Georgia, continuing upstream to the mouth of Graham Branch in Polk County, Tennessee. Unit 2 consists of 82.5 stream miles of the Etowah River, beginning at its confluence with Shoal Creek in Cherokee County, Georgia, continuing upstream to 0.5 miles upstream of where the Etowah River crosses Jay Bridge Road in Lumpkin County, Georgia.  Both units are occupied by the species and contain most of the physical or biological features essential to its conservation.

Both units of critical habitat overlap with multiple listed species, including the amber and trispot darters and freshwater mussels like the southern clubshell and fine-lined pocketbook. No other river basin in North America has a higher percentage of endemic species as the Upper Coosa River, which researchers call a “globally significant biological treasure.”

How does the proposed critical habitat designation look on a map?  

Map of habitat area for frecklebelly madtom

Proposed designation of critical habitat for the Upper Coosa River DPS of frecklebelly madtom with units, riparian ownership, and length of units.

Unit Riparian Ownership Stream Miles Stream Kilometers
1: Conasauga River Private, Private Conservation Parcels, State Lands, Federal 51.5 83
2: Etowah River Private, Private Conservation Parcels, State Lands, Federal 82.5 133

What is critical habitat?

The Service has the authority to identify critical habitat when it proposes to list an animal or plant as endangered or threatened. Critical habitat 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 federal agencies and the public are aware of the habitat needs of the frecklebelly madtom and proper consultation is conducted by federal agencies when required by law.

The designation will have no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.

What does a critical habitat designation do?

When an area is designated as critical habitat for a listed species, federal agencies are required to ensure that any action they fund, authorize or carry out is not likely to result in the destruction of the habitat. This is carried out through consultation with the Service under Section 7 of the ESA. This only affects projects that require a federal permit or other actions funded or conducted by a federal agency.

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.

What is a 4(d) rule?

For a threatened species, the Service may use flexibility provided under the ESA’s Section 4(d) to tailor the take prohibitions to accommodate those actions that may 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 to continue that may benefit the madtom and do not significantly harm it, while focusing our efforts on the threats that slow species recovery.  These customized protections of the ESA minimize regulatory burden while maximizing the likelihood of recovery of a threatened plant/animal.

How does the 4(d) rule affect activities occurring in the frecklebelly madtom’s habitat?

The proposed 4(d) rule would provide exceptions to incidental take resulting from the following:  channel restoration projects, streambank restoration projects, and activities carried out under programs like the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) program or similar projects.

How do I submit comments on this proposal?

The public is invited to submit written comments on the proposal to list the frecklebelly madtom, the proposal to designate critical habitat, and the proposed 4(d) rule up to 60 days from its November 19, 2020 publication in the Federal Register. Please submit comments by January 19, 2021.  The Service will post all comments on This generally means the agency will post any personal information provided through the process.

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, 4(d) rule and critical habitat designation for the frecklebelly madtom.

The complete listing proposal can be obtained by visiting the Federal eRulemaking Portal at Docket Number FWS–R4–ES–2020-0058.

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