Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 7, 2015

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681,

Fish Unique to Southeastern Kentucky Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection
With 246 Stream Miles of Critical Habitat

Kentucky Arrow Darter Lost From Half Its Range Due to Mountaintop Removal

LEXINGTON, Ky.— Under a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect the Kentucky arrow darter, a small fish found only in southeastern Kentucky, under the Endangered Species Act. The proposal includes special “critical habitat” protection for 246 miles of streams in 10 eastern counties. The fish has been lost from about 49 percent of its historical range due primarily to water pollution from surface coal mining.

Kentucky arrow darter
Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. This photo is available for media use.

“The plight of the Kentucky arrow darter tells the story of the blatant sacrifice of creeks in eastern Kentucky to the coal industry,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “Endangered Species Act protection will not only help the darter survive, but will also help protect the health of the people who have to live with polluted water and air from coal mining every single day.”

The streams being proposed for protection as critical habitat are found in Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Owsley, Perry and Wolfe counties. Critical habitat protection means that any federally funded or permitted project will have to consult with the Service to make sure that activities do not harm the fish or its habitat. 

The Kentucky arrow darter has been lost from 36 of 74 sites, with 16 of these extirpations having taken place since the mid-1990s as mountaintop-removal coal mining expanded. In some counties in eastern Kentucky, nearly one-fifth of the total surface area of the county has been permitted for coal mining, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. As of 2008, 23 percent of the total area of Perry County and 18 percent of the total area of Knott County were under open permits for surface coal mining.

“I grew up on Troublesome Creek, where the Kentucky arrow darter is now nearly wiped out,” said Curry. “Thank goodness the Endangered Species Act is finally going to start protecting the precious wildlife of Appalachia.”

Populations in nearly half of the darters’ occupied streams are ranked as vulnerable and are isolated, putting the species at risk of extinction throughout its range. In addition to coal mining, the Kentucky arrow darter is threatened by logging, oil and gas well development, agricultural runoff and inadequate sewage treatment. The healthiest surviving populations are found on the Daniel Boone National Forest and Robinson Experimental Forest.

Kentucky arrow darters are 5 inches long, with a straw-yellow to pale-green background color most of the year; males become brightly colored during the breeding season, becoming blue-green with scarlet spots and orange bars. They feed on mayflies and young crawdads.

The Kentucky arrow darter was considered to be a subspecies until 2011, when genetic analysis revealed that the arrow darters in the upper Kentucky River system are genetically distinct from the arrow darters in the Cumberland River system. Based on the genetic data and visible differences in scale size, the Kentucky arrow darter and Cumberland arrow darter were both elevated from subspecies to full species’ status. The Cumberland arrow darter had also been on the candidate waiting list for Endangered Species Act protection, but the Service announced today that listing is not warranted for the Cumberland species, even though it has been wiped out from 33 percent of its range and is likely to be lost entirely from the eastern portion of its range due to pollution from surface coal mining.

Pollution from surface coal mining in Appalachia has been linked to declines in downstream fish, salamanders, insects and mussels. Mining also threatens downstream communities with pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects. More than a million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.

The Service added the Kentucky arrow darter to the candidate waiting list for Endangered Species Act protection in 2010. In 2011 the Service and the Center reached a landmark agreement that requires the Service to issue protection decisions for all the species on the 2010 candidate waiting list by 2016 as well as to issue decisions for hundreds of species that have been petitioned for protection. To date 151 plants and animals have received protection as a result of the agreement, and another 68 have been proposed for protection. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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