Southeastern Fishes Council
Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes

A Good Fish Story: Okaloosa Darter May Be Taken Off Endangered List
August 14, 2007

Release from: Mladen Rudman
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — The Okaloosa darter has been on the Endangered Species Act list about as long as the federal law has existed, some 34 years.

Efforts at Eglin Air Force Base to revive the darter's dwindling population have been successful. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as part of a recent status review, has recommended that the 1-to-2-inch fish with big eyes be downlisted from endangered to threatened.

"It's a huge step," said wildlife service fishery biologist Bill Tate.

After downlisting, the next move will be to remove the little fish from the Endangered Species Act list altogether, a goal now within reach.

Golf course darter

Mill Creek in central Okaloosa County is some four-miles long, with about one-third of it running through Eglin Golf Club off State Road 85 near Niceville.

The wildlife service, in cooperation with Eglin's natural resources branch, Jackson Guard, has almost completely restored the clear waterway by digging a channel and wide floodplain across or under holes 2, 14, 16 and 17 on the Falcon course.

Construction started early this year, and the project has proved itself in short order, Tate said.

"We've found just this year … that the darter has already moved in and taken up residence," said Tate.

Biologists track Mill Creek darters by injecting a dye into a fish's right or left side behind the first dorsal fin. Left- or right-side tagging using yellow, orange or green dyes — depending on where darters are caught — tells biologists near which bank the fish were caught.

Among the darter's survival quirks is an aversion to crossing streams unless there's cover such as tree snags.

It doesn't like the dark, either.

Let the sun shine

Four corrugated tin tubes about 40 inches in diameter rose from Falcon's 14th fairway until Tuesday.

The tubes might have inhibited tee shots, but they also protected open holes that exposed clear water and sand bottom to sunlight.

Mill Creek runs beneath the hole through a wide, 200-foot-long culvert.

The tin tubes were replaced by Plexiglas skylights that permit mowers unobstructed cutting while allowing sunlight in the culvert.

Provided by the 46th Test Wing at Eglin, the culvert skylights are an experiment.

Biologists have determined Okaloosa darters avoid moving through dark spaces, so they hope the skylights will encourage the species to spread from one side of the fairway to the other.

"Well, what about skylights?" Tate said of discussions among biologists hoping to spur darter migration. "It started out kind of jokingly and, after a while, it was, ‘Well, why not skylights?' "

The one-inch thick skylights might also help golfers migrate toward lower scores.

"If you're fortunate enough to hit one of these on a fly, you're going to get an extra 15 yards of bounce," said a smiling Natural Resources Branch Chief Steve Seiber.

Painless conservation

Okaloosa darters thrive in cool, sand-bottom streams with plenty of grasses and natural debris the fish use as homes and spawning beds.

Golf courses thrive on a constant influx of players, many of them cranky.

Biologists tried to meld Mill Creek habitat restoration with Eglin Golf Club's business needs.

For example, when golf administrators raised a concern about degrading the club's difficulty rating by removing water hazards, stream design engineers accommodated that worry, Tate said. Where a big pond was removed to make room for the winding stream, two smaller ponds were added to ensure the same level of play.

The Mill Creek rehab, which cost between $550,000 and $600,000, benefits more than the Okaloosa darter.

By restoring the stream and its floodplain, biologists say the area is better adapted for channeling stormwater runoff, which helps deter flooding and damage to the course. The wider floodplain also slows water flow, which lets more runoff pollution settle before entering Choctawhatchee Bay, where it can cause algae and bacteria blooms.

Mill Creek's floodplain was planted with a mix recommended by the National Wild Turkey Federation, an organization dedicated to rebuilding wild turkey populations across America.

Protect the darter and an assortment of animals, from minnows to great blue herons, are helped, too, Tate said.

"What we're interested in is ecosystem health," said the fishery biologist. "An endangered species is an indicator of an ecosystem in trouble."