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Tiny Kentucky arrow darter may be listed as threatened, possibly limiting future coal mining
By Greg Kocher
A little fish called the Kentucky arrow darter — up for listing under the Endangered Species Act — isn't likely to create as much of an uproar as its famous Tennessee relative, the snail darter.
A fish barely 3 inches long, the snail darter delayed construction of a dam on the Little Tennessee River in the 1970s. Litigation on whether the dam would alter the habitat of the river to the point of wiping out the fish went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Kentucky arrow darter, a more colorful fish barely 5 inches long, was proposed Wednesday by the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed as a threatened species. If the fish is listed, there would be a limited impact on the coal, logging, and oil and gas industries, biologists say.
Half the streams where the Kentucky arrow darter lives are on public lands, such as Daniel Boone National Forest and the University of Kentucky's Robinson Forest, which afford some degree of protection, said Mike Floyd, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's field office in Frankfort.
And the Kentucky arrow darter has been a candidate for a threatened listing since 2010, so "it's not like it's a huge surprise to anyone" that the Service formally proposed threatened status, Floyd said.
Finally, Floyd said he isn't aware of plans "to do any large-scale development" in the 10 Eastern Kentucky counties where the arrow darter lives.
Still, any talk about the Endangered Species Act is bound to draw attention, not because the law tries to save a particular plant or animal but because it tries to save the habitat they need to survive. That means preventing people from altering those ecosystems in any way.
There won't be any immediate job losses among coal companies if the fish is listed in the next year, said David Ledford, a member of the Kentucky Coal Association and a wildlife biologist who works with coal companies on reclamation projects and endangered-species issues.
However, in the long term, the listing will mean that thousands of tons of coal won't be mined, Ledford said.
"Let's say a company owns 10,000 acres where this fish is, and it drains into the creek," Ledford said. "That 10,000 acres might contain 10 million tons of coal that could be surface mined. That's 10 million tons of coal that they'll never be able to sell, and that's a very significant impact.
"There are some people facing that now. There may be no mining on the land now, there may not even be a permit on it now. But suddenly that part of their portfolio is gone. ... For those landowners, it's a major hit."
Eastern Kentucky logging might also be affected, said Jeff Stringer, a forestry professor at the University of Kentucky.
"You can run logging operations, if done correctly, around streams with the arrow darter in them, and it should not be a problem" in terms of sediment pollution, Stringer said. "If done poorly or wrongly, then there's an issue."
State law requires a trained master logger on each site and the use of practices to avoid water pollution, said Stringer, chairman of the Kentucky Forestry Best Management Practices Board, a panel appointed by the governor.
The Kentucky arrow darter is the third species in the state proposed for listing this year. Also proposed is the Big Sandy crayfish, which also lives in Virginia and West Virginia, and the white fringeless orchid, a plant that lives in a few sites in Laurel, McCreary, Pulaski and Whitley counties.
Historically, the Kentucky arrow darter was found in 74 streams of the upper Kentucky River drainage in Eastern Kentucky. Now the fish is found in 47 streams in Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Owsley, Perry and Wolfe counties.
Populations in only 23 streams are considered stable.
Fish that live in the Redbird District of Daniel Boone National Forest are on the western edge of where mining occurs, Ledford said. Other populations are to the north of active coal fields. "Mining isn't really going to be much of a threat any more, I believe," Ledford said.
But the fish has been lost from half of its historical range because of water pollution from surface coal mining and other impacts, said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
"It's only found in Eastern Kentucky, and so much of Eastern Kentucky has been mined," said Curry, who grew up on Troublesome Creek near Hindman in Knott County. "That's why the fish is in trouble — because it's in a small range, but there is a big threat in the small range."
Logging, oil and gas development, agricultural runoff and inadequate sewage treatment also put the species at risk for extinction.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a species may be listed as either endangered or threatened.
"Endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
"Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered.
There's not a lot of difference in terms of protection between an endangered species and a threatened one. However, some exemptions for human activity are available for a threatened species that are not available for an endangered one, Floyd said.
It's not easy to add a creature to the list. A candidate for listing must undergo a scientific review and a public comment period. The comment period for the Kentucky arrow darter just began and goes through Dec. 7.
The Fish and Wildlife Service added the Kentucky arrow darter to a candidate waiting list for protection in 2010. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement that requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue protection decisions for all species on the 2010 waiting list by 2016. Wednesday's announcement was a result of that settlement.
The same day that the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the Kentucky arrow darter for threatened status, it said another, closely related fish does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
State and federal biologists determined that the Cumberland arrow darter is doing better than previously thought. In Kentucky, it is found in Bell, Harlan, Knox, Letcher, McCreary, Pulaski and Whitley counties, and in some areas of Tennessee.
The Cumberland arrow darter occupies 98 streams, an increase from the previous record of 60 streams. It also benefits from existing laws and regulations designed to protect other listed fishes in those streams.
Kentucky now has 53 listed species, Floyd said. They are four birds, four bats, seven fishes, 26 mussels, one crustacean, and 11 plants.
Asked why ordinary citizens should care about a little fish or other species they probably haven't seen, Curry said "all plants and animals play an important role in the environment, and we don't necessarily know what that role is. But they're all there for some reason, and we have a responsibility to protect them."
Listing the Kentucky arrow darter "can help protect the remaining places that mining hasn't destroyed yet," she said. "That will help protect the communities and people who live there, too. ... Everybody needs to care about clean water, and protecting the fish will help protect the creeks."
But Jim Scheff, director of the forest-preservation group Kentucky Heartwood, said the better question to ask is, "What right do we have to destroy a species forever so that no human will ever see that species again?"
"We're losing things that make Kentucky special," Scheff said. "The near-loss of this species is an indication of how terribly we have treated our waterways in Eastern Kentucky, and we really need to turn that around."
© 2015 Kentucky.com.
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