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A tiny greenish brown fish in front of a white ruler.
Information icon Spring pygmy sunfish. Photo by Matt Laschet, USFWS.

Spring pygmy sunfish designation of critical habitat

What is the spring pygmy sunfish and where does it occur?

The spring pygmy sunfish is a spring-associated fish which is currently found in spring systems in the Tennessee River drainage in northern Alabama. Understanding of the distribution of the spring pygmy sunfish changed in 2015 with the discovery of the fish in Blackwell Swamp on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Currently the spring pygmy sunfish is known from Beaverdam Spring/Creek in Limestone County and Blackwell Swamp in Madison County. Historically, this sunfish was known to occur at two other sites in northern Alabama. The species’ decline has been attributed to water pollution, a reduction of water quantity, and impoundments.

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

After discovering a new population of spring pygmy sunfish, and reopening the comment period for critical habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has now finalized the critical habitat designation for the threatened sunfish.

What is the final critical habitat designation for the spring pygmy sunfish?

The Service is designating critical habitat in three units, two in Limestone County, and one in Madison County. Two of these units are currently occupied by the sunfish, while the third unit, which we have determined is essential for the conservation of the species, was historically occupied but is currently not inhabited by the species.

Approximately 89% of this unoccupied unit is on Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) land that is maintained by the state of Alabama as a wildlife management area. In total, critical habitat covers 1,330 acres, of which 1,209 acres are federally owned and 121 acres are privately owned. Four landowners in one of the units have been enrolled in Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) for approximately seven years. The Service has excluded the 503 acres in the CCAAs from our final critical habitat designation because the benefits to the species of exclusion outweigh the benefits of inclusion.

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

Critical habitat units 1, 2, and 3 cover portions of Beaver Dam Spring, Pryor Spring, and Blackwell Swamp, respectively (Figure 1). Units 1 and 3 are currently occupied and Unit 2 was historically occupied by the species. The amount of stream and land area for each unit by private and federal ownership is shown in Table 1. In total, we are designating as critical habitat 6.7 miles of springs and spring fed streams in an area of 1,330 acres.

We are excluding 503 acres enrolled in three CCAAs, all in Unit 1. In the rest of Unit 1 where the physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species are present, we are designating 845 acres of critical habitat. Most of Unit 1 (88%) and all of Unit 3 are within Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and most of Unit 2 (89%) is on TVA land.

A map showing critical habitat in Limeston and Madison Counties along the Tennessee River in Alabama
Critical habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish. Map by USFWS.

Table 1. Ownership of the proposed critical habitat units for the spring pygmy sunfish

Unit Location Private ownership km (mi); ha (ac) Federal ownership km (mi); ha (ac) Total length km (mi) Total area ha (ac)
1 Beaverdam Spring/Creek 0.8 (0.5); 41 (101) 4.4 (2.7); 301 (744) 5.2 (3.2) 342 (845)
2 Pryor Spring/Branch 0.2 (0.15); 8.1 (20) 3.1 (1.9); 65.6 (162) 3.4 (2.1) 73 (182)
3 Blackwell Swamp/Run 0 (0); 0 (0) 2.3 (1.4);123 (303) 2.3 (1.4) 123 (303)
Total 1.0 (0.7); 49.1 (121) 9.8 (6.0); 489.6 (1209) 10.9 (6.7) 538 (1330)

*Note: Sizes may not sum due to rounding

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 Endangered Species Act 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 spring pygmy sunfish, 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 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 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 has been the process for finalizing this critical habitat proposal for the spring pygmy sunfish?

The comment period for the proposed critical habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish has been open to the public on four separate occasions. Each time the Service receives comments from the public, we process and analyze the comments. Sometimes as a result of those comments, the Service makes changes to the proposal. When we make a significant change, we must reopen public comment. In the midst of the original proposal, a new population of spring pygmy sunfish was discovered. This delayed the finalization process even further.

Does this critical habitat have any effect on the Toyota-Mazda Joint Venture in Huntsville, Alabama?

The Service continues to work informally with the city of Huntsville, Alabama, related to the early stages of site preparation for the construction of a manufacturing facility for the Toyota-Mazda Joint Venture (JV) that is expected to create roughly 4,000 jobs. The site lies adjacent to the critical habitat of the spring pygmy sunfish, and does not overlap its boundaries. Based on coordination with the city and JV, the Service believes that strategies have been incorporated into the development of the automotive manufacturing facility that benefit conservation of aquatic species.

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