A federal agency just took a big step toward protecting a little fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week declared 338 miles of West Virginia streams to be critical habitat for the endangered candy darter.
State wildlife officials don’t expect the action to make much difference, if any, in the way people use the streams, most of which form the headwaters to the Greenbrier and Gauley rivers.
“This won’t restrict any of the activities currently going on in those waters,” said Scott Warner, assistant chief in charge of the Division of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Section.
“It does allow us, on our end, to focus our conservation efforts by having those streams officially identified.”
Fish and Wildlife Service officials outlined the agency’s rationale for critical-habitat designation in a 90-page document issued April 6. The document divided the watersheds into five basic units: the Greenbrier, Upper Gauley and Lower Gauley in West Virginia; and the Upper New and Lower New in Virginia.
The Virginia units include six small tributaries of the New River, a total of 30 stream miles.
The West Virginia units include many of the state’s most popular trout-fishing and smallmouth bass-fishing streams.
The Greenbrier unit includes the East and West Forks of the Greenbrier, the Little River of the East Fork, the Little River of the West Fork, Mountain Lick Creek, the main stem of the Greenbrier downstream to Marlinton, Knapp Creek, Deer Creek, the North Fork of Deer Creek and Sitlington Creek.
The Upper Gauley unit includes the North and South Forks of the Gauley, the main stem of the Gauley downstream to the mouth of Big Beaver Creek, the Williams River, the Cranberry River, the North and South forks of the Cherry River, Laurel Creek of the Cherry, the main stem of the Cherry downstream to its junction with the Gauley, and Panther Creek.
The Lower Gauley unit includes the main stem of the Gauley from Summersville Dam downstream to the mouth of Collison Creek.
Biologists believe the principal threat to the candy darter is its tendency to hybridize with the variegate darter. Researchers suspected that so-called “bait-bucket introductions” — anglers using variegate darters for bait in streams that contain candy darters — had helped accelerate the candy darter’s decline.
Two years ago, right around the time the candy darter was placed on the federal Endangered Species List, DNR officials took steps to protect the darters by prohibiting the use of live minnows for bait in the upper Greenbrier and Gauley watersheds.
At the same time, they also stopped stocking brown trout (which are believed to prey more heavily on darter-sized fish than do rainbow or brook trout) in waters known to contain candy darters.
Warner said those steps, plus the DNR’s ongoing effort to improve water quality and habitat for native brook trout, should all benefit the endangered darter.
“Also, we’re working with the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery to raise darters in captivity and stock them in streams with suitable habitat,” he added. “Knowing where the critical habitat is will help us put those fish in the right places.”
More than half the stream mileage designated as critical darter habitat is located on state- or federally owned lands. Warner believes that will help the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service to prevent the species’ extinction.
“Even on private lands, we’re getting cooperation from landowners and corporations that see the value in helping to conserve an endangered species,” he said.
In the critical-habitat document, Fish and Wildlife Service officials praised the DNR and the state Department of Environmental Protection for what they called “proactive efforts” to protect the darters, particularly the minnow-fishing restriction and the use of limestone sand to reduce the impact of acid rain in sterile watersheds.