A 2,400 acre logging project in the Monongahela National Forest has been canceled over habitat concerns for the candy darter, a small, colorful non-game fish granted protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Big Rock Project, located in the Cranberry River watershed of Nicholas and Webster counties, called for a series of timber sales designed to thin hardwood stands, create early succession forest habitat, and open wildlife clearings.
A number of small clear cuts, totaling about 1,300 acres, would have been created to make possible new stands of early succession habitat, while about 700 acres would have been thinned and had timber removed by trucks. More than 400 additional acres of timber targeted for thinning on steeper, less accessible slopes would have been removed by helicopter. The project had been under review since 2014.
Since the candy darter was first scientifically described in 1932, 35 populations have been discovered in fast-moving, rocky-bottomed creeks and rivers in West Virginia and in several of Virginia’s New River tributary streams. Follow-up surveys have shown that the fish no longer exists in nearly half of the sites it previously populated. Only 5 of the candy darters’ 18 remaining known populations are considered to be healthy and thriving.
In 2010, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend endangered species protection to the candy darter. After such protection failed to materialize in the five years that followed, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in 2015 to force the agency to act on the matter. Endangered species protection was granted in November 2018.
The candy darter that was the subject of the species’ first written scientific description was captured from Stoney Creek in Pocahontas County by John Addair of Welch, a member of a state fish survey crew compiling a census of fish living in the Kanawha River watershed.
Most candy darters are an inch or two long, though they have been known to reach up four inches in length, and feature bright, alternating vertical bands of teal, orange and red.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed protecting 370 miles of streams in West Virginia and Virginia as critical habitat for the rainbow-colored fish. Some of the 183 miles of stream considered critical habitat in the Gauley River Watershed, which includes much of the Cranberry and Cherry River systems, flow through the Big Rock Project. The designation of those stream sections as critical habitat was a factor in the decision to cancel the Big Rock project, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Building new logging roads and clear-cutting trees on extremely steep slopes would have been disastrous for wildlife, including the beautiful candy darter,” said Jason Totolu, a senior attorney at the center.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of Blackwater submitted formal objections to the Big Rock Project last July.