by Heather Tomlinson
The dastardly little duskytail darters that threatened to keep Lake Cumberland lower than normal for another summer won’t be moved out of the upper reaches of the impoundment until sometime this fall.
Don B. Getty, manager of the Wolf Creek Dam Rehabilitation Project and a participant in the biological solution to environmentalists’ concerns, said biologists this fall will use nets and take samplings of the endangered minnows out of the Big South Fork River.
Estimates are that the number of duskytail darters in the Big South Fork River is in range of 1,000, Getty said. Most of the endangered minnows are in the vicinity of Blue Heron, also known as Mine 18, a former coal mining town on the banks of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in McCreary County.
Getty said the duskytail darters removed from the river initially will be taken to a facility in Knoxville, and then later the fish will be kept at the Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery. The idea is to protect the darters from a rising lake that might destroy habitat, and to propagate the minnows while in captivity.
Eventually, the darters, and hopefully the minnows’ progenies can be returned to the Big South Fork River or other appropriate habitats.
Initial removal of the darters won’t begin until this fall because biologists will wait until the lake is traditionally lower in autumn. This means water recedes from the Big South Fork River habitat of the duskytail darters and the minnows will be more easily captured in nets.
In case you missed it, duskytail darters, 2 1/2-inch-long minnows on the federal Endangered Species List, moved into a five-mile stretch of the Big South Fork River while the lake was kept low for seven years to make repairs to leaky Wolf Creek Dam.
The duskytail darter is a rare species of fish in the perch family native to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. It occurs in the drainages of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, and was federally listed as an endangered species in 1993. Habitat for the slow-moving darters is in shallow water, mainly in ripples over rock-strewn river beds.
Fear that darters would be destroyed when a normally operating lake inundates the new habitats caused environmentalists to go bonkers. “Bureaucracy gone amok” as Carolyn Mounce, executive director of Somerset-Pulaski Convention and Visitors Bureau so aptly put it, resulted in an announcement in late January that the lake would remain at a low level for yet another summer.
Frankly, something not nice hit the fan. Tourism interests, beleaguered by seven lean summers with a low lake, had their mouths all set in a smiley face to entertain the Ohio Navy back in full force during Summer 2014. They expected a full lake after the dam was finally fixed and anger might not be strong enough to describe their reaction to the duskytail darter delay.
Flax reached the Halls of Congress and powerful politicians put the heat on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete a “biological opinion.” In other words, get those minnows out of our hair and do it posthaste.
They did. The “biological opinion” was completed in 45 days, three months earlier than the 135 days allotted in the law that governs “biological opinions” and such as that. The solution was relatively simple: Take a net and catch the little fish that are so slow they can’t swim but about 2 feet without getting tired. Then move the minnows to another location for safekeeping.
Result: The lake has returned to normal operation and is rising toward traditional pool stage. At noon Thursday, the water was at 710.90, nearly 31 feet higher than the 680 target while the dam was being fixed, and only about 12 feet below the tree line.