“A major victory was declared Tuesday in the long upstream battle of the Okaloosa darter, as the little fish native only to Okaloosa and Walton counties was declared no longer threatened by extinction.
With its population having grown from an estimated 1,500 when conservation efforts began in earnest in 1994 to a robust 600,000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has proposed that the Okaloosa darter be removed from the Endangered Species List.
“The recovery of the Okaloosa darter is another ESA success story,” Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz told a gathering on Eglin Air Force Base, according to a press release issued afterward.
“This rare fish would not have recovered from the brink of extinction without the planning, efforts and long-term commitment of the U.S. Air Force as well as the leadership and dedicated staff from Eglin Air Force Base,” Estenoz said.
The darter’s habitat is confined to six adjacent stream systems that drain into Choctawhatchee Bay in Okaloosa and Walton counties. Of the 243 estimated stream miles in which it exists, 90% are located on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation.
The Okaloosa darter was listed as endangered as early as 1973, according to a report by the Three Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council.
In 1994 Jackson Guard, Eglin’s environmental resource arm, along with six other state and federal agencies and scientists from three universities, embarked on an effort to save the darter.
“The level of effort that has gone into reaching this milestone is truly incredible. We committed to understanding the problem and implementing viable solutions, and everyone should be proud of the results,” Col. Joseph Augustine, vice commander of Eglin’s 96th Test Wing, told those gathered Tuesday.
Augustine said perhaps the greatest achievement of the 27-year effort to restore the Okaloosa darter population to health was the building of “meaningful partnerships” with entities such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“Our friends and partners at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Loyola University, the local community, and everyone else who teamed together were instrumental to recovering this species,” he said.
At the time the Okaloosa darter was most threatened, it was losing a battle for resources with a cousin, the brown darter, and having its habitat destroyed by sedimentation. A Three Rivers RC&D Council report estimated that up until the mid-1990s as much as 70,000 tons of sediment was flowing into darter habitat each year.
Three Rivers Council President Steve Duncan said that his team contracted with Jackson Guard early on in the fight to save the darter and undertook efforts such as building retention ponds to divert sediment away from fish habitat, wetland restoration, removal of culverts and obsolete bridges….”