NICEVILLE – A major victory was declared on Tuesday in the long battle upstream of the Okaloosa Darter, as the small fish native to Okaloosa and Walton counties was declared not in danger of extinction.
With its population having increased by about 1,500 when Conservation efforts started in earnest in 1994 at a solid 600,000, the US Fish and Wildlife proposed that the Okaloosa dart be removed from the endangered species list.
“The recovery of the Okaloosa dart is another ESA achievement,” Assistant Secretary of Fisheries, Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz said at a rally at Eglin Air Base, according to a statement from press subsequently published.
“This rare fish would not have recovered from the brink of extinction without the long-term planning, effort and commitment of the US Air Force and the leadership and dedicated personnel of Eglin Air Force Base.” , said Estenoz.
Darter habitat is confined to six adjacent stream systems that flow into Choctawhatchee Bay in Okaloosa and Walton Counties. Of the estimated 243 miles of stream in which it exists, 90% are located on the Eglin Air Base Reserve.
The Okaloosa darter was listed as an endangered species as early as 1973, according to a report by the Three Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council.
In 1994, Jackson Guard, the environmental resources arm of Eglin, along with six other state and federal agencies and scientists from three universities, embarked on an effort to save the dart.
“The level of effort that has gone into reaching this milestone is truly incredible. We are committed to understanding the problem and to implementing workable solutions, and everyone should be proud of the results, ”Col. Joseph Augustine, vice-commander of the 96th Eglin Test Wing, told reporters. people gathered on Tuesday.
Augustine said that perhaps the greatest achievement in the 27-year effort to restore the Okaloosa dart population to health was building “meaningful partnerships” with entities such as US Fish and Wildlife.
“Our friends and partners from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Loyola University, the local community and all who have teamed up have played a role. critical in the recovery of this species, ”he said.
When the Okaloosa Darter was most threatened, it was losing a battle for resources with a cousin, the Brown Darter, and its habitat was being destroyed by sedimentation. A Three Rivers RC&D Council report estimated that until the mid-1990s, up to 70,000 tonnes of sediment entered darter habitat each year.
Three Rivers Council chairman Steve Duncan said his team contracted with Jackson Guard early in the fight to save the darter and undertook efforts such as building retention ponds to divert sediment from it. fish habitat, wetland restoration, removal of obsolete culverts and bridges.
Natural vegetation has been planted in areas where it could help prevent sediment runoff, he said.
“We are really happy with the success,” Duncan said.
Conservation efforts have resulted in reduced stream erosion on more than 480 acres of Eglin AFB, according to the press release. Fish barriers have been removed and stream habitat restored.
It became clear that efforts to save the Okaloosa Darter were paying off when in April 2011, it was announced that the fish was being upgraded from Endangered to Threatened.
“A substantial reduction in threats to the species, significant habitat restoration in most of the species’ ranges, and a stable or increasing trend of darters in all darter stream systems” have been identified. by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as reasons for reclassification.
The decision to remove the Okaloosa Darter from the list entirely follows a five-year review of the species, according to the press release. A team of biologists reviewed and compiled data and research and produced a situation assessment report.
“This report provides the basic science for today’s proposal to delist the species,” the press release said.