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August 14, 2001

Tom MacKenzie, (404) 679-7291
                    Pager (800) 863-6946
Tyler Sykes, (931)528-6481, ext. 214

The endangered boulder darter today just got a little breathing and spawning room from 15 tons of rocks and a successful partnership between federal, state and private organizations and agencies.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in conjunction with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), Tennessee Valley Authority, and Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI), hand carried the rocks to two locations on the Elk River.

“This is not work for the faint of heart or back,” said Lee Barclay, Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cookeville Ecological Services Office. “But it has a proven track record in creating the best habitat for the darter.”

The partners created the special habitat needed by the darter with a large dump truck load of rocks from Noland Stone Company, Nashville, Tennessee. After being dropped at the riverbank near Hamilton Mill, at Dellrose, Tennessee, biologists, scientists and conservationists hand-carried the 15 tons of boulders into the Elk River. Then the 200 captive-reared endangered boulder darters were given their first taste of freedom in the Elk River.

“Since the boulder darter is one of the rarest fish in the United States, we have to go above and beyond to help it recover,” said Gary Myers, Executive Director of TWRA. “This is a great way to help reclaim a species on the brink.”

The endangered boulder darter (Etheostoma wapiti) is a small-sized member of the perch family reaching a maximum length of about three inches. The males of the species are olive to gray in color, while the females are similar but lighter in color. Both sexes have a gray to black bar located below the eyes and a similarly colored spot behind the eyes. The boulder darter is currently found only in the Elk River, a large tributary system of the Tennessee River in southern Tennessee and northern Alabama. It is currently restricted to about 63 miles (101 kilometers) of the main channel of the lower Elk River and a few of its tributaries.

The species is not distributed continuously within this range, but is concentrated at a few sites with suitable habitat. Historically, the boulder darter also lived in Shoal Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, but that population has been extirpated.

As the common name suggests, the boulder darter lives and spawns in mid-June to late summer among boulders that occur in relatively shallow water, in depths of three feet or less. The boulders must also occur in flowing water that is not too swift, such as in riffles or rapids, and not too slow, as in slightly flowing pools. These conditions are ideal for maturation of the eggs that are attached to the undersides of these rocks and guarded by the male. Because of this specificity, suitable habitat is limited.

In addition to this lack of habitat, many human-caused factors have contributed to the decline of the boulder darter. In the Elk River, the major impacts resulted from impoundment of the upper river section by Tims Ford Reservoir; thermal alteration of the tailwaters below Tims Ford Dam from warm to cold water; impoundment of the lower Elk River by Wheeler Reservoir; fluctuating water levels from power generation at Tims Ford Reservoir; industrial, municipal, and agricultural pollution; and extensive siltation from soil erosion. The primary reasons for the demise of the boulder darter in Shoal Creek were the impoundment of the lower creek by Wilson Reservoir, siltation from agricultural erosion, and pollution from upstream municipalities in Alabama.

As a result of these threats and the species’ limited range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the boulder darter as an endangered species in September 1988. The Service, along with other conservation agencies and organizations, has been working ever since to learn more about the boulder darter and its habitat. This information is being used to protect and restore the species to its historic range.

In 1995, CFI, a non-profit organization in the business of propagating rare fish species, collected boulder darters from the Elk River to develop a captive breeding program. This was initiated in the hopes that population numbers in the Elk River could be augmented and the fish possibly reintroduced into Shoal Creek.

“Boulder darters were once so rare that we were forced to work with bloodfin darters, a closely-related, common species to learn more about boulder darter habits and spawning,” said Pat Rakes of CFI. “In 1995 or 1996, we were able to collect a whopping number of four boulder darters from which we eventually reared 200 individuals.”

In addition to these efforts, personnel with CFI have surveyed the Elk River looking for additional occurrences of boulder darters and suitable habitat where captive-reared fish can be released. They have also surveyed Shoal Creek for suitable habitat for possible locations of future reintroductions of the species.

At about the same time, personnel with TWRA began augmenting existing spawning habitat with man-made, concrete structures fashioned to mimic natural slabrock. Because these structures met with limited utilization by boulder darters, TWRA, the Service, and CFI decided to try utilizing natural limestone slabrock. In the summer of 1999, three-and-a-half tons of slabrock were placed in the Elk River at a known boulder darter occurrence. Subsequent surveys of the site revealed the largest concentration of boulder darters ever found. As a result of this great success, efforts to augment spawning habitat at other locations in the Elk River continue with boulder placement and reintroductions at two sites in August 2001 at Hamilton Mill and Fayetteville, Tennessee.

Through the partnerships of agencies and entities and the successful implementation of various recovery efforts, it is hoped that these successes will enable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to someday remove this species from the list of endangered species.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

Media Advisory
Fact Sheet
Additional information and photos for the Boulder Darter

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2001 News Releases

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