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A small fish with brown and white spots swimming in front of small rocks.
Information icon Trispot darter. Photo by Dick Biggins, USFWS.

Unique fish gets endangered species protection with proposed exemptions and critical habitat

A small, colorful fish found in the Coosa River Basin is now federally protected.

On January 29, 2018, the trispot darter was formally recognized as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now proposing exemptions to otherwise prohibited activities under the ESA. The exemptions, included in a 4(d) rule, mark the ESA’s flexibility in allowing for certain management activities to continue because of their overall benefit to the long-term status of the listed darter.

At the same time, the Service is proposing critical habitat for the darter.

The rule and proposals were published in the Federal Register on December 28, 2018 during the partial government shutdown. The public is invited to submit written comments and information on the proposed critical habitat rule and/or proposed 4(d) rule by February 26, 2019.

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

The fish is most susceptible to threats that affect their access to spawning areas, including excessive groundwater withdrawals, drought, or construction of man-made structures like dams and road crossings that can limit or prevent its access; however, changes in habitat and poor water quality from pollution, sedimentation, agricultural and stormwater runoff can also affect critical life stages of the trispot darter which have been noted in the species decline.

The trispot darter 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.

Exempted activities

A 4(d) rule is a targeted approach that can reduce Endangered Species Act conflicts by allowing some activities that do not significantly harm the species to continue, while focusing efforts on addressing threats to the species’ recovery.

The proposed 4(d) rule for the trispot darter will allow flexibility for:

  • Conservation actions.
  • Stream restoration.
  • Forestry activities guided by best management practices that forest landowners in many cases are already implementing and benefiting these habitats.
  • Transportation projects that provide for fish passage at stream crossings.
  • Natural Resource Conservation Service Working Lands for Wildlife projects in the range of this species.

Critical habitat

The proposed critical habitat designation for the trispot darter consists of 181 stream miles and 16,735 acres of occupied spawning habitat. Each state owns the navigable waters within its boundaries, and all known spawning habitat for the species is located on private lands.

Establishing critical habitat will raise awareness of the needs of the trispot darter and other imperiled species and focus the efforts of our conservation partners. It also alerts federal agencies that they are required to make special conservation efforts when they work, fund or permit activities in those areas.

Proposed Unit 1: Big Canoe Creek

Unit 1 consists of 41 stream miles in St. Clair County, Alabama, and 10,167 acres of land that encompasses spawning habitat. Unit 1 begins on Big Canoe Creek approximately 3.5 miles upstream of Pinedale Road, west of Ashville, Alabama to US Hwy 11. Unit 1 also includes the westernmost Little Canoe Creek to AL 174 and all of its associated tributaries.

Proposed Unit 2: Ballplay Creek

Unit 2 consists of 17 stream miles in Etowah, Cherokee and Calhoun counties, Alabama, and 2,527 acres of land that encompasses spawning habitat. The trispot darter occupies the unit, and it currently supports all breeding, feeding and sheltering needs for the species. Unit 2 begins upstream of a wetland complex located at the border between Etowah and Cherokee counties at County Road 32 and continues upstream approximately to the US Highway 278 crossing over Ballplay Creek in Calhoun County, Alabama.

Proposed Unit 3: Conasauga River

Unit 3 consists of 57 stream miles and 2,161 acres of land that encompasses spawning habitat in Whitfield and Murray counties, Georgia, and Polk and Bradley counties, Tennessee. It begins in the Conasauga River upstream of the mouth of Coahulla Creek and continues upstream to the mouth of Minneawuaga Creek. Unit 3 also includes: Mill Creek from its confluence with the Conasuaga River in Bradley County, Tennessee, upstream to the first impoundment on Mill Creek approximately at Green Shadow Road SE; Old Fort Creek from Ladd Springs Road SE in Polk County, Tennessee, to its confluence with Mill Creek in Bradley County, Tennessee; and Perry Creek from its headwaters.

Proposed Unit 4: Mill Creek

Unit 4 consists of 15 stream miles and 438 acres of land that encompasses spawning habitat in Whitfield County, Georgia. The land surrounding the river in this unit is privately and city owned. The trispot darter occupies the unit, and it currently supports all breeding, feeding, and sheltering needs for the species. Unit 4 begins in Mill Creek at its confluence with Coahulla Creek and continues upstream for approximately 15 miles to the US Highway 41 crossing over Mill Creek.

Proposed Unit 5: Coahulla Creek

Unit 5 consists of 26 stream miles and 1,442 acres of land that encompasses spawning habitat in Whitfield County, Georgia, and Bradley County, Tennessee. Unit 5 begins immediately upstream of the Prater Mill dam upstream of GA Highway 2. It continues upstream for approximately 26 miles to Ramsey Bridge Road SE and includes wetland habitat from half a mile downstream of Hopewell Road to approximately half a mile upstream of McGaughey Chapel Road. The land surrounding the river in this unit is privately owned.

Proposed Unit 6: Coosawattee River

Unit 6 consists of 25 stream miles beginning at the confluence of the Coosawattee River and the Conasauga River in Gordon County, Georgia. It continues to Old Highway 411 downstream of Carters Lake Reregulation Dam in Murray County, Georgia. The land surrounding the river in this unit is a mix of state, private and Army Corps of Engineers property.

A map showing range in Northeast Alabama, Norhtwest Georgia, and Southern Tennessee
Trispot darter current and historic range. Map by USFWS.

The complete critical habitat and 4(d) proposals can be obtained by visiting the Federal eRulemaking Portal: with one of the three docket numbers below. A copy can also be obtained by contacting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1208-B Main Street, Daphne, Alabama, 36526.


The public is invited to submit written comments and information on the proposed critical habitat rule and/or proposed 4d rule by February 26, 2019, 60 days after the proposals’ publication in the Federal Register. Comments may be submitted by:

  1. online at by entering one of the three docket numbers below 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: docket number(s) (see below), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing within 45 days by February 11, 2019, 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 critical habitat and 4(d) rules for the trispot darter.

Docket numbers

  1. Final listing rule: FWS-R4-ES-2017-0063
  2. Proposed critical habitat rule: FWS-R4-ES-2018-0073
  3. Proposed 4d rule: FWS-R4-ES-2018-0074


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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