‘Threatened’ Status Gives Sunfish a Safety Net | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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‘Threatened’ Status Gives Sunfish a Safety Net

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized the listing for the spring pygmy sunfish as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and also promised that critical habitat would be designated in the near future.

The listing action was fast-tracked by a court-approved five-year workplan, the result of a settlement agreement between the USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the agency's most frequent litigators. The settlement and workplan are to speed listing decisions for 757 plants and animals across the country.

The sunfish, less than an inch long, is only found in six miles of Beaverdam Creek and four springs associated with the Beaverdam Spring/Creek watershed in the Tennessee River drainage area in Limestone County, Ala.

Historically, the sunfish were also present at two other sites. It was found in 1938 in Cave Springs, Lauderdale County, Ala., but a year later the site was flooded due to the formation of the Pickwick Reservoir and the fish were wiped out. In 1941, it was also discovered in Pryor Spring within the Swan Creek watershed in Limestone County, Ala., but by 2007, that population was also found to have died off due to impaired water quality and quantity, "likely attributable to contaminants from agricultural runoff," the action noted.

Within the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system, only the Beaverdam Spring has a natural, unaltered springhead and a natural surface spring pool habitat. The other three springs, Moss, Horton and Thorsen, contain mechanically enlarged springheads that can cause excessive pool level fluctuations that are damaging to the spring pygmy sunfish during times of drought.

"The greatest concentration of spring pygmy sunfish occurs within the Beaverdam Spring site, which comprises 24 percent of the total occupied habitat for the species, and has experienced the least human-induced disturbance," the agency said.

Other threats include ground and surface water withdrawal, declining water quality, urban and industrial development and habitat fragmentation, which can affect gene flow. Drought associated with climate change is also of concern.

The 2012 proposed rule noted that a voluntary Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) between the wildlife agency and private landowners offered some protections. Since that time, two additional CCAAs have been proposed. "[T]he additional conservation actions in the proposed CCAAs do not remove the threats to the species and its habitat to the point that listing is not necessary, especially when considering probable and potential impacts from planned residential and industrial development," the agency said, "[t]herefore, the possible final approval of the proposed CCAAs following the public comment period would not change our determination to list the spring pygmy sunfish as a threatened species."

Because the existing CCAA offers some protections for the fish, and because threats from planned development have not yet happened, the agency determined that the species meets the standard for threatened status rather than endangered.

"There's still time to save the spring pygmy sunfish, but only if we act fast to protect its habitat from careless development and unsustainable agricultural practices," Mike Sandel, a CBD fisheries biologist was quoted as saying in the group's press release.

The USFWS noted that the rule's effective date is 60 days from publication, rather than the usual 30 day period, so the public can review and comment on the two proposed CCAAs.

The final listing for the sunfish is effective Dec. 2.

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