Endangered vermilion darter spreading its fins up Turkey Creek after dam removal

Endangered vermilion darter spreading its fins up Turkey Creek after dam removal
The extremely rare vermilion darter has expanded its habitat since a dam on Turkey Creek was removed. (Freshwater Land Trust)

Four years after the removal of a 100-year-old dam from Turkey Creek in Jefferson County, a critically endangered fish species is spreading its fins farther up the recently freed stream.

Last month, the nonprofit Freshwater Land Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed a population of the rare vermilion darter living upstream from the site of the former dam. Not only had the dam prevented the tiny, brightly colored fish from moving upstream, it also adversely affected water quality in Turkey Creek – trapping silt behind the structure and altering the stream’s natural flow.

The newly found darter population indicates that the 2013 dam removal has improved the fish’s habitat. The vermilion darter is found in only one place on the planet: along a nine-mile stretch of Turkey Creek.

Alabama Power was among the partners that supported the dam’s removal.

Endangered species like the vermilion darter can be “the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to assessing the health of an ecosystem, said Eric Spadgenske, state coordinator in Alabama for the wildlife service. Spadgenske has been involved in the Turkey Creek project from the start. “The biological diversity that we enjoy in Alabama is a blessing. It should not be taken for granted,” he said.

The Land Trust and the wildlife service also found the darter on nearby property purchased by the Land Trust in September. The new property adds more than 60 acres of mixed-hardwood forest to the Land Trust and the state Forever Wild Land Trust’s existing conservation holdings in the Turkey Creek area.

“Together these conserved lands provide migration corridors for wildlife, including black bears, and intact forest that protects over 30,000 feet of stream full of diverse plants and animals, including the darter,” said Jeffrey Drummond, stewardship director at the Land Trust.

“This project shows what we do really well. Our ability to acquire land gives the fish a safe home, and our expertise in stream restoration makes that home bigger and cleaner,” said Libba Vaughan, Freshwater Land Trust executive director. “It is thrilling to see the proof that these beautiful fish are thriving and their population growing with our efforts.”

Charles Yeager, manager of the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in nearby Pinson, said partnerships with organizations like the Land Trust and the wildlife service are critical to protecting the wider Turkey Creek watershed.

“If we only worked within Turkey Creek Nature Preserve itself, we would never solve the real problems that lie upstream. We would be creating Band-Aids, not solutions.

“Our partners provide resources and unique approaches that make it possible for all of us to make a real impact,” Yeager said.

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