- Two federal conservation initiatives were recently announced on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, aimed at supporting the candy darter.
- The candy darter is a vibrant and diminutive fish residing in 18 dispersed populations across West Virginia’s Greenbrier, Bluestone, and Gauley river watersheds.
- The Upper Greenbrier Watershed fish passage work will take place in area considered critical habitat for the candy darter’s survival and recovery.
The candy darter, a small, brightly colored fish found in 18 small populations scattered through West Virginia’s Greenbrier, Bluestone and Gauley river watersheds, will benefit from two federal conservation initiatives announced earlier this month on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.
The candy darter was listed as an endangered species in 2018, after disappearing from half of its historic range and facing the risk of extinction from stream sedimentation, pollution, habitat fragmentation and hybridization. The fish also is known to live in several New River tributary streams in two Western Virginia counties.
The rainbow-colored fish has been identified as one of 32 endangered or threatened species in the nation to receive top priority in a $62.5 million project to accelerate recovery planning for imperiled wildlife and plant species.
The funding, provided through the Inflation Reduction Act, will be used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hire additional biologists to assist in the effort of drafting recovery plans for the targeted species.
During the next several years, the biologists will be involved in prioritizing and implementing recovery plans for 300 other species now listed under the Endangered Species Act.
While the candy darter continues to face survival challenges from stream sedimentation from logging, mining and other forms of human activity, a new threat has emerged in recent years due to the arrival of another species of darter in its habitat range.
Until the 1990s, the variegate darter was not known to exist in the Kanawha River watershed above Kanawha Falls. But late in final decade of the past century, the fish began turning up miles upstream from the natural barrier.
Biologists believe it likely that an angler using variegate darters for bait transported a container of the “minnows” upstream of the waterfall for use in catching game fish, releasing some of the bait darters, which gradually made their way into the Gauley River at Gauley Bridge.
The two closely related species can interbreed and produce hybrid offspring, with the more abundant variegate darter expected to eventually replace the candy darter in areas where both are known to exist.
In addition to the candy darter, several imperiled freshwater mussel species and an endangered bat species — all known to exist in West Virginia and a number of other states — are also on the priority list for expedited recovery planning.
The endangered sheepnose mussel, known to exist in 25 streams in 14 states, including sections of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers in West Virginia.
The endangered spectaclecase mussel, now found in 20 streams in 11 states, including West Virginia’s Kanawha River.
The endangered snuffbox mussel, now found in segments of streams in 14 states, including West Virginia’s Elk River and several of its tributaries.
The endangered northern long-eared bat, a once-common species found in 37 states, including West Virginia, but now with a population that has declined by up to 99% since the deadly fungal disease white nose syndrome arrived in the United States in 2006.
The second new federal conservation initiative targeting the candy darter is the $939,500 Upper Greenbrier Watershed Fish Passage Program. Through it, seven undersized, poorly functioning or non-functioning culverts restricting the movement of candy darters, brook trout, eastern hellbenders and other forms of aquatic life, will be replaced with fish-friendly stream crossing structures.
Money to pay for the project comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The fish-friendly, under-road, stream crossing structures are designed to improve connectivity between seven upper Greenbrier River tributary streams and the main stem river, and effectively reopen 25 miles of currently blocked streams. When complete, the project will improve climate resiliency by providing a network of high-elevation, cold water habitats for fish to occupy.
The replacement structures, all located in Pocahontas County, also are designed to withstand higher flow events than the culverts they replace, benefiting public safety and access to outdoor recreation.
Long-range plans call for the Upper Greenbrier Watershed Fish Passage Project to replace similar under-road barriers between rivers and tributary streams to create a network of 105 miles of connected cold water habitat along the East Fork and West Fork of the Greenbrier within the next 10 years.
The project was planned through the inter-agency National Fish Passage Program, which focuses on supporting the recovery of aquatic species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the candy darter.
The Upper Greenbrier Watershed fish passage work will take place in area considered critical habitat for the candy darter’s survival and recovery.