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Service proposes listing for the rare sickle darter fish from Upper Tennessee River Basin

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the sickle darter as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The sickle darter is a small slender-bodied fish native to the upper Tennessee River. The Service is also proposing a 4(d) rule, which tailors protections while allowing certain activities that do not hinder its recovery.

sickle darter fish
Sickle darter fish; image courtesy of

Habitat loss and water quality degradation from a variety of sources are the primary threats to the species. These threats, combined with negative effects of the species’ reduced range have caused the disappearance of sickle darter populations from historically known locations.

“Species like the sickle darter, which are found nowhere else in the world, deserve our protection,” said the Service’s Regional Director, Leopoldo Miranda. “Despite the challenges that the species is facing, much work has been set in motion to help stabilize populations and lay the foundation for its eventual recovery.”

There are currently six populations of sickle darter found in the Emory River system (Tennessee), Little River system (Tennessee), Sequatchie River system (Tennessee – discovered in 2014), Upper Clinch River system (Virginia), North Fork Holston River system (Virginia), and Middle Fork Holston River system (Virginia). Populations within the French Broad River (North Carolina and Tennessee), South Fork Holston River (Tennessee), Powell River (Tennessee) and Watauga River systems (Tennessee) have been lost.

Prior to 2005, the sickle darter was known to nine tributary systems of the upper Tennessee River drainage in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Rivers where it was found included the: Emory, Clinch, Powell, Little, French Broad, North Fork Holston, Middle Fork Holston, South Fork Holston and Watauga rivers.

Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI) initiated propagation efforts for the sickle darter in 2015. Personnel from CFI collected adult male and female fish from the Little River in Tennessee. CFI was able to produce 25 juvenile sickle darters from those efforts and released juvenile fish in 2017. The propagation effort provided valuable information on the species’ reproduction and early life history and shows that there is potential for hatchery rearing and population restoration as a conservation tool in the future.

For threatened species, the Service may use the flexibility provided under the ESA’s Section 4(d) to tailor take prohibitions to those that provide conservation benefits for the species – referred to as a 4(d) rule.

The proposed 4(d) rule for the sickle darter would provide exceptions to incidental take resulting from restoration efforts by state wildlife agencies, channel restoration projects, streambank stabilization projects, and silviculture and forest management activities that implement the highest standard of best management practices. Also excepted would be transportation projects that provide for fish passage in waters occupied by the sickle darter. The provisions in this proposed rule for channel restoration and habitat protection can only occur between April 1 and January 31 to help avoid the sickle darter’s spawning period, curtailing the likelihood of incidental take.

At this time, the Service is only proposing listing for the species and a 4(d) rule. Critical habitat for the sickle darter will be proposed at a later date.

The Service will accept comments received or postmarked on or before January 11, 2021. Comments submitted electronically using the Federal eRulemaking Portal (see ADDRESSES, below) must be received by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on the closing date. We must receive requests for a public hearing, in writing, at the address shown in for further information contact by December 28, 2020.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments by one of the following methods:

1. Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: In the Search box, enter FWS–R4–ES–2020–0094, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, click on the Search button. On the resulting page, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check the Proposed Rule box to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”

2. By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2020–0094, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: JAO/1N, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.

The Service requests that you send comments only by the methods described above. All comments will be posted on This generally means that the Service will post any personal information you provide.

Published November 22, 2020

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