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A small fish with bright blue fins and orange coloring on its back.
Information icon Trispot darter. Photo by Pat O'Neil, Geological Survey of Alabama.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes protection for rare darter in Coosa River Basin

A unique fish that acts like a tiny salmon needs protection.

The trispot darter, a small, colorful fish found in parts of the Coosa River Basin in southeastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northern Alabama, is disappearing.

Following a scientifically rigorous review of the darter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to list the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Every year this short-lived fish, which is less than two inches long, swims upstream from the larger river habitat where it usually lives so it can spawn in the vegetation of small tributaries and seeps.

The trispot is listed as a Priority 2 species of High Conservation Concern by the state of Alabama. It’s endangered in Georgia, and listed as threatened in Tennessee. Federal protections for the trispot will assist state and local efforts to protect the species by raising greater awareness of the threats to the fish and focusing conservation efforts on its behalf.

Primary threats to the trispot darters occur as as they swim back and forth to spawning areas, and are caused by challenges like excess groundwater withdrawal, drought, or man-made structures like dams and road crossings. Habitat alteration and poor water quality from pollution, sedimentation, agricultural and stormwater runoff, and development are also factors in the darter’s decline.

A corogated metal tube allows water to run under a road.
Culverts like this can be a barrier for fish as they swim upstream. Photo by Alabama Rivers and Streams Network SHU Mapper.

“The condition of the trispot darter is an indicator that habitat conditions, stream flows and water quality are declining in the Coosa River Basin,” said Mike Oetker, the Service’s acting regional director in the Southeast. “The good news is that we believe we can reverse those declines and recover the trispot through ESA-inspired efforts, and working with our partners in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to build on some good conservation work already underway.”

Currently, the trispot darter is known to occur in the Conasauga River and tributaries (Polk and Bradley Counties, Tennessee; Whitfield and Murray Counties, Georgia), the Coosawattee River below Carters Lake and a tributary (Gordon and Murray Counties, Georgia), Little Canoe Creek and tributaries (St. Clair County, Alabama), and Ballplay Creek tributaries (Cherokee and Etowah Counties, Alabama).

Numerous conservation efforts for this fish are ongoing. Priority watersheds within the range of the trispot darter have been designated as Strategic Habitat Units by the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network. The Strategic Habitat Units project was developed for species restoration and enhancement. A threats analysis is being conducted and the results will contribute to restoration projects that will improve habitat and water quality for at risk and listed species. The Atlantic Coast Conservancy holds a tract of land within Ballplay Creek, which will preserve the land and offer some protection in the watershed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife partnership within the basin will help farmers develop and implement strategies to improve water quality.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is also performing a comprehensive conservation status assessment by compiling and summarizing existing distribution data. Information needed for an assessment of threats to spawning habitats also will be provided. The Geological Survey of Alabama, a state agency, is carrying out a threats analysis for the trispot darter and collecting microhabitat data. Their work will also include known collection information and a distribution map depicting geographic regions, hydrologic units, and general land use. The Service, as part of the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network, has been identifying a list of potential barriers (primarily road crossings) throughout much of the trispot darter’s range in Alabama.

The public is invited to submit written comments on the proposal to list the trispot darter up to 60 days from its October 4, 2017 publication in the Federal Register. Please submit comments by December 4, 2017.

The complete listing proposal can be obtained by visiting the Federal eRulemaking Portal: at Docket Number FWS–R4–ES–2017–0063; 4500030113. A copy can also be obtained by contacting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1208-B Main Street, Daphne, Alabama, 36526.

Written comments and information may be submitted by: (1) online at by entering FWS-R4-ES-2017-0063; 4500030113 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: FWS-R4-ES-2017-0063; 4500030113, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. All comments must be received on or before December 4, 2017. Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing within 45 days by November 20, 2017, 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 listing determination for the trispot darter.

Frequently asked questions

Learn more about the trispot darter and the proposal to list the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.


Denise Rowell, 251-441-6630,
Phil Kloer, 404-679-7299,

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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