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Boulder Darter Reintroduction in Tennessee And Alabama

May 10, 2005

A rare fish that has been on the federal endangered species list for 17 years is being given a new chance at survival in Tennessee River tributary where the fish has not been seen since the 1880s.

Boulder Darter
Boulder Darter - USFW photo
Today, 217 young boulder darters, grown in a hatchery, are being released by professional foresters and scientists into Shoal Creek, which flows through Lawrence County, Tennessee, and Lauderdale County, Alabama.

Our partnership of public and private organizations may save the rare boulder darter from extinction, said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before today, this fish only existed in the Elk River in Tennessee and Alabama. Now another population of boulder darters has a chance to gain a foothold in the wild, and perhaps eventually recover to the point that Endangered Species Act protection is no longer needed.

The Service is joined in the effort by International Paper (IP), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and Conservation Fisheries Inc., (CFI), a non-profit fish conservation organization based in Knoxville, Tenn., that provided the young darters.

As part of reintroducing the darters to Shoal Creek, the fish were placed in bags and then floated in Shoal Creek so they could acclimate to their new environment before being released. CFI will tag each darter, monitor the fish population several times a year and document any spawning behavior.

The boulder darter was listed as endangered in 1988. The only known wild populations of the boulder darter exist in the Elk River, Giles and Lincoln Counties, Tenn., and Limestone County, Ala., and in the lower reaches of Richland Creek, an Elk River tributary. Only three inches in length, the fish is olive-to-gray-colored. There is evidence, based on historically available suitable habitat, that boulder darter fish once inhabited fast-water, rocky habitat in the Tennessee River and its larger tributaries from the Paint Rock River in Madison County, Ala., downstream to at least Shoal Creek.

Boulder darter populations originally disappeared from the Tennessee River system because of poor water quality and the construction of Wilson Dam. However, as a result of the Clean Water Act and environmental control measures by public and private organizations, industries and individuals, the creek’s water quality has greatly improved.

A portion of Shoal Creek adjacent to International Paper forests was identified as the best site for reintroduction of the fish.

Since 2001, International Paper has been an active partner in preparing to reintroduce the boulder darter into Shoal Creek. While conducting a survey of Shoal Creek, CFI identified a shoal adjacent to an area of our forestlands in southeastern Tennessee as the best habitat for the initial reintroduction, said David A. Liebetreu, International Paper’s vice president, Forest Resources. Our IP professional foresters and scientists were already involved in the propagation effort, so it was a natural step to reintroduce the fish from the banks of our forestland into the waters that we help to protect. This is a tribute to our protection of water quality and an example of our continuing efforts to protect aquatic biodiversity.

The reintroduced fish are designated as nonessential experimental populations under the Endangered Species Act. This classification precludes anyone who accidentally kills or harms the fish from being in violation of the law, provided that the take occurs as part of an otherwise lawful activity. Similarly, federal or federally funded projects will not be required to be altered or stopped to protect these darters.

Non-essential experimental populations are valuable management tools in the recovery of rare species. Because of the reduced regulatory restrictions on these populations, this designation on a portion of Shoal Creek provides a recovery opportunity for the boulder darter that might not otherwise be realized, said Gary Myers, executive director, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. It is also providing a partnership opportunity for state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and industry to work together toward the common goal of species recovery.

The boulder darter reintroduction is part of a major, cooperative effort to restore and recover native species in the Tennessee River system. Other projects have included reintroducing the spotfin chub and three other fish species into Abrams Creek in Blount County; augmenting boulder darter populations in the Elk River; and reintroducing the spotfin chub and three other federally-listed species into the Tellico River.


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