The future of a little fish now looks brighter.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have issued a $61,000 grant to help restore populations of the endangered candy darter.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources officials will match the grant with a similar sum, and will use the money to capture darters from streams where they’re still abundant, propagate them at the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, and release them into waters where they can thrive.
The candy darter, a brightly colored bottom-dwelling fish, exists only in West Virginia. It has become endangered because it readily interbreeds with the variegate darter, a closely related species. Pure native candy darter populations can now be found only in the upper Gauley and Greenbrier river watersheds.
Barb Douglas, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Senior Endangered Species Biologist in West Virginia, said candy darters have gone missing from 17 of the 35 streams they once inhabited. In November 2018, the service placed the candy darter on the federal Endangered Species List.
Since then, resource agencies have begun a flurry of measures designed to prevent the species’ further decline, and to bolster existing populations:
First, DNR and FWS researchers launched a pilot program to see if candy darters could be bred and raised in hatcheries.
Next, the DNR initiated restrictions on the use of fish for bait in the upper Gauley and Greenbrier watersheds. The regulations were put into place because biologists suspected that anglers were introducing variegate darters into those watersheds when they dumped live minnows out of bait buckets.
In recent weeks, the U.S. Forest Service joined the effort by canceling a 2,400-acre logging project in the Cranberry River watershed, part of the darter’s native range.
Douglas said the measures were necessary because the species’ range was diminishing so rapidly.
“We knew that if we didn’t act quickly, the candy darter could have been extirpated,” she added.
Last year, DNR biologists captured 100 candy darters from the Greenbrier’s upper tributaries and translocated them to Camp Creek and Manns Creek in the southern part of the state. Douglas said those streams could provide safe havens for candy darters because there are no variegate darters for the candy darters to interbreed with.
“The grant will allow that work to continue,” she explained. “For the next two years, candy darters will be captured out of the Greenbrier watershed, and they will be held at White Sulphur Springs and tested to make sure they’re genetically pure.
“West Virginia University will handle the genetic testing. While the darters are at White Sulphur, some of them will be propagated, and some of the adults will be released — either to bolster populations in streams where they currently exist, or to establish populations in streams where they don’t.”
DNR biologists will monitor the released fish to determine the restoration effort’s effectiveness, Douglas said.
“The candy darter is a stunningly beautiful fish, and it’s native to West Virginia,” she added. “This effort represents West Virginia folks working to protect West Virginia natives. As long as we have candy darters, we know we have quality habitat for all of our fish species.”