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Agency finalizes critical habitat for endangered fish

Nearly half of candy darter populations documented since 1932 have disappeared. With the looming threat of losing one of North America’s most vivid freshwater fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected the species as endangered in November 2018. The agency has now completed the next step required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) ­– designating areas of habitat that are essential for its conservation.

The Service is designating 368 miles of occupied streams in Virginia and West Virginia as critical habitat for the species. Critical habitat focuses conservation efforts, but does not affect land ownership, set aside lands or establish a formal conservation area. The designation requires federal agencies to consult with the Service to ensure their actions do not destroy or adversely modify the habitat. The critical habitat designation only applies to the five watersheds where the darter persists and follows a review of the best available scientific information and economic analysis for the species.

Although streams designated as critical habitat are considered state waters, adjacent land is owned by a combination of federal, state and private interests. The designation does not affect landowner activities that do not involve federal funding or do not require federal permits. It does not allow the government or the public access to private lands, nor does it require non-federal landowners to restore habitat or recover species. However, the Service has programs available to assist landowners interested in habitat restoration, including the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Virginia and West Virginia.

Candy darter habitat historically declined when land conversion activities removed the forested and riparian habitat that sustained healthy stream conditions for the fish. Areas designated as critical habitat will be the focus for reducing sedimentation, protecting water temperatures, maintaining flows and reducing potential spills, among other activities.

These areas will also be the focus for minimizing the risk of introduction or spread of another darter species, the variegate darter. Biologists are concerned about the significant negative consequences of this darter breeding with candy darters. Variegate darters are not native to candy darter habitats but were likely inadvertently introduced into these areas as discarded bait fish.

Anglers can play a key role in candy darter conservation by disposing their unused bait fish in the trash rather than rivers or streams and by not using live fish bait in candy darter watersheds. Live bait fish can upset natural fish communities and may lead to the decline of some species, including the candy darter.

You can learn more about the candy darter and the final critical habitat designation at https://www.fws.gov/northeast/candydarter/. Additionally, a memo explaining the anticipated incremental effects of this designation is available in the Docket (FWS-R5-ES-2018-0050).

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