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U.S. agency lays out plan for saving fish

Yellowcheek darter found only in the Little Red River

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a draft plan for saving the yellowcheek darter fish, an endangered species found only in the forks of the Little Red River.

The plan, which was drafted in December, opened for public comment March 6. Interested parties have until May 5 to comment.

Recovery plans don't obligate anyone outside of the wildlife service to undertake any tasks, the agency said.

The wildlife service listed the yellowcheek darter as endangered in 2011, and designated 102 river miles of the Middle, South, Archey and Devils forks of the Little Red River as critical habitat in 2012. Those are in Cleburne, Searcy, Stone and Van Buren counties.

"It's only found in Arkansas," said Brian Wagner, nongame aquatics biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "That's one of the things that makes it so special."

Wagner and scientists at the U.S. wildlife agency, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Nature Conservancy worked on the recovery plan.

The plan, which is available at https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp0/profile/speciesProfile?sId=7871#recovery, calls for protecting the fish's habitat and promoting voluntary actions that would prevent or reduce pollution in the habitat.

An accompanying biological report prepared by the wildlife service details the threats to the yellowcheek darter: habitat degradation and loss, poor water quality and their small population to begin with and resulting vulnerability. Specifically, sedimentation in the forks, "poor" livestock grazing and timber harvesting practices, gravel mining, channel instability and natural-gas development are threats, the report said.

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The darter is a small fish -- growing to only 2.5 inches long, the wildlife service said. The fish's back and sides are a grayish brown, but breeding male and female fish have different colored spots, the report said. Breeding male darters have blue or turquoise throats and breasts and light-green bellies, while breeding female fish have orange and red-orange spots. The fish lives up to five years.

In 1981, researchers estimated that about 36,000 yellowcheek darters lived in the Middle Fork; 13,500 in the South Fork; about 10,000 in the Devils Fork; and about 10,000 in the Archey Fork. A 2000 study estimated 6,000 of the fish were in the Middle Fork; 2,300 in the South Fork; and 2,000 in the Archey Fork. Devils Fork was not studied. A 2005 study estimated that between 15,000 and 40,000 yellowcheek darters were in the Middle Fork and between 13,000 and 17,000 in the South Fork -- a study done using a method that required high population numbers for accurate estimates and thus yielded "highly variable" results, the wildlife service said.

"The problem is the reservoir," Steve Lochmann, professor in aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said, referring to Greers Ferry Lake. The damming of the Little Red River to create the lake dispersed the yellowcheek darter into the four forks, only two of which are connected.

That further isolates an already isolated species, according to the biological report.

The small range of the yellowcheek darter could be a major factor in its endangered status, the report said, noting, "due to the restricted range and small population size, the species is likely suffering genetic isolation and reduced adaptive capabilities, resulting in lower representation."

Lochmann said the fish do not appear to cross over in the two forks that are connected.

Other darter species exist in the forks but are not in peril as a species because they exist elsewhere, Lochmann said.

Researchers have discussed efforts to help the fish reproduce by capturing them, breeding them and reintroducing them into the water. Those efforts are not a part of the recovery plan.

The plan calls for additional research and monitoring, and the development of a plan to prevent and manage a potential spill in the upper Little Red River watershed.

Industries should attempt to follow best management practices, the plans says.

The wildlife service estimates that eventually achieving recovery levels sufficient to have the yellowcheek darter reclassified as "threatened" -- a step up from "endangered" -- would cost $22,130,000. That number comes from the cost of the activities that would be needed to improve the species' situation. Getting the species taken off the wildlife service's endangered or threatened list entirely would cost an additional $23,190,000, according to the plan.

The wildlife service further estimates that the fish could be reclassified as threatened by 2032 and it could take another 15 years to get it taken off the endangered or threatened list.

The fish needs habitat within the stream to promote "gene flow," stable river bottoms and mostly silt-free riffles, permanent surface flows, adequate water quality and several aquatic macroinvertebrates for prey, the biological report said.

Reducing silt and sediment in the forks would help create a more ideal habitat for the fish, Wagner said. Landowners can undertake voluntary programs to stabilize stream banks and reduce sediment, he said.

Metro on 03/20/2017

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