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A small, brown and yellow fish with iridescent scales around its gills
Information icon A female spring pygmy sunfish. Photo by Matt Laschet.

New population of spring pygmy sunfish discovered

Service reopens Critical Habitat comment period

To protect one of only two known populations of a rare, threatened Alabama fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing to designate a swamp in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) as critical habitat for the species. A new population of spring pygmy sunfish was discovered in the swamp in late 2015. The proposed critical habitat designation will help guard against the sunfish’s extinction and support recovery efforts by local, state and federal partners.

Biologists discovered the fish in Blackwell Swamp, a recreational area and popular spot along the North Alabama Birding Trail at Wheeler NWR. The discovery of this second population decreases the sunfish’s vulnerability to a catastrophic event or other threats. Because it is located on the refuge, its inclusion in the proposed designation would have no impact on private landowners or the business community.

The spring pygmy sunfish is a spring-associated fish that until recently was found only in a single spring system (Beaverdam Swamp/Creek) in the Tennessee River drainage in Limestone County, Alabama. Historically, this fish was known to occur at two other sites in northern Alabama: one in Limestone County, the other in Lauderdale County. The population decline of the fish has been attributed to water pollution, a reduction of water quantity, and impoundments. It was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2013.

Blackwell Swamp contains 303 acres and a little more than one stream mile of habitat located entirely within Wheeler NWR. The area has the appropriate water quality, spring-like flows, and aquatic vegetation necessary for the spring pygmy sunfish. Under this revised proposal, the new area, known as Unit 3, would be an addition to the 1,549 wetland acres and eight stream miles of critical habitat currently proposed.

In 2012 and 2014, the Service proposed to designate two critical habitat units for the one known population of spring pygmy sunfish. Unit 1 includes 1,367 acres and almost six stream miles of critical habitat, of which 518 acres and nearly four stream miles are on private land; the remainder of the unit is on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Unit 2 contains 182 acres and two stream miles of proposed critical habitat. There are 20 acres and two-tenths of a stream mile of Unit 2 on private land adjacent to the remainder of the unit in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. With the addition of Blackwell Swamp, we are proposing three critical habitat units totaling 1,852 wetland acres and more than nine stream miles of critical habitat.

Establishing critical habitat raises awareness of the needs of the spring pygmy sunfish and other imperiled species and focuses the efforts of our conservation partners. It also alerts federal agencies, which are required under the ESA to make special conservation efforts when they fund or permit projects in those areas.

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 Toyota-Mazda Joint Venture that is expected to create roughly 4,000 jobs. This plant is located next to proposed critical habitat. The Service also continues to talk with Toyota-Mazda JV to answer questions and provide technical assistance. Based on what the Service knows today, there will be no effect from the construction and operation of this plant to the spring pygmy sunfish or its proposed critical habitat.

Comments on the proposal to designate critical habitat including the addition of Blackwell Swamp, can be submitted one of two ways:

  1. online at or
  2. mail or hand delivery to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2013-0010; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203.


Denise Rowell,, (251) 441-6630

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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