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The Farmer and the Fish: Conserving the endangered Relict Darter

By Rebecca Feldhaus

Water Valley, KY – It's not uncommon for Private Lands Biologist Andy Radomski to tromp through rolling fields early in the morning on his way to local waterways in search of a tiny fish. The object of Radomski's current affection on this hot and humid July morning? The Relict Darter. Scientific name Etheostoma chienense is one of the 28 species on the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife list of endangered or threatened species in Kentucky.

After a few skims with a large, weighted net, Radomski's colleagues had an exciting catch.

"Within this container I see one, two, three, four five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 13 relict darters."

Thirteen light brown fish with distinctive black lines from the side of their mouth to gills in a plastic container might not sound like anything important. But for Radomski, it's a fantastic sign.

"It's a tough life for a fish, and we're pleased to see some of the relict darters doing well in this stretch."

The fuss over this fish comes from the fact that it's been endangered since 1993 and it is highly endemic, meaning the species occurs in only one place on earth. For the Relict Darter, that place is Bayou du Chien a stream system, that runs through Graves, Hickman and Fulton Counties and empties into the Mississippi River.

Radomski periodically checks the local streams to keep tabs on the population of darters within them. He's part of an initiative called Partners for Fish and Wildlife that teams-up Fish and Wildlife workers with private landowners for the best outcome for both sides.

Considering some troubling numbers from a 16-year-old survey, Radomski's box of 13 gained a new context.

"So right here, according to 1994 data, we have about 1/3 of the population, right here in this seine haul."

Where is the balance between a fish and a farmer's right to prosper? That was one question Graves County farmer Pat Fenwick asked 15 years ago, when the Department of Fish and Wildlife contacted him about the special species on his land.

"Well, when I first heard about it, I was a little bit scared about having an endangered species, because I had heard some horror stories about what you have to do to abide by the rules."

Fenwick is just one farmer who had channelized streams on his land. Channelization, known by various names, in essence is the straightening of streams. It includes digging new drainage ditches along cropped land as well as straightening an existing stream. This stream engineering is one of the main reasons the relict darter is not doing as well as it might. University of Kentucky Professor of Forestry Chris Barton explains the process.

"You're essentially making the stream shorter. And by making it shorter, you make the stream steeper, the velocity of the water going through the stream actually increases, and you get a stream that went from slow meandering to a very rapid, cutting type of action."

In addition to water velocity, channelization affects the relict darter because they thrive in shallow, running water with natural wood and brush debris under which they can lay their eggs. Stream channelization in some cases removes the in-stream cover, as well as the vegetation that filters out silt during heavy rain. This is not only a negative for the darter, but the land-owner as well according to Barton. He says the stream will continue cutting at the banks until it slowly restores its natural meander, thus threatening the crops and soil in its path.

But, Murray State University Agronomy Professor David Ferguson has a different take on channelization as long as it's done properly.

"To a farmer, it can mean the difference between being able to crop a field or not. So certainly they do provide a lot of benefit."

Because the practice was so popular from the 1930s to the 1960s, farmers who now own the land, in many cases, were not the ones who dug the original ditch. The solution comes with compromise. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now has policy on channel modification, including restoring natural meanders to channels.

The Partners program has worked with farmers like Pat Fenwick to put in warm weather native grass strips to stop erosion, as well as making rock formations to diffuse the force of high quantities of rushing water. Pat Fenwick says he's not the only one with positive results.

"Everybody I know of with this particular project, that has worked on the darter project down here in Bayou du Chien, is happy."

This makes Andy Radomski happy.

"I do praise Mr. Fenwick and the property owners that do take care of their property like this, it's a good indication that farming and the farm industry and the wildlife are all thriving in this area."

While the relict darter is thriving on Fenwick's property, its endangered status still stands. Currently Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery in Jamestown, Kentucky holds a stock of the darters in case of a chemical spill or other disaster. The next official survey of the relict darter will be at the end of the summer.