Commonwealth Journal

May 16, 2014

Duskytail darters to get new home

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Burnside —

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s promised field trip with Lee’s Ford Resort Marina owner J.D. Hamilton to Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery to view the infamous duskytail darters may be delayed until Momma and Papa Darter have some more little darters.
Duskytail darters, the endangered minnows that threatened to keep Lake Cumberland low for another year, will be taken out of the Big South Fork River later this summer and initially be taken to a Knoxville conservation facility to be taught complexities of parenthood.
When, as the old woman who lived in a shoe, the darters have so many children, they don’t know what to do, the minnows’ progenies will be taken to Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery for long-term maintenance.
A promised field trip to see duskytail darters was the end result last Friday when McConnell’s commercial flight to Lexington was grounded by mechanical problems at a Washington, D.C. airport and he didn’t make it to a celebration of Lake Cumberland returning to normal levels. The senator was supposed to cut a ribbon symbolizing “Cumberland’s Back” on Harbor Deck overlooking Lake Cumberland at Lee’s Ford Resort Marina.
Instead, McConnell promised Hamilton, owner of the marina and host of the lake celebration, that he would go with him on a field trip to the national fish hatchery to see the federally endangered minnows.
McConnell is no fan of duskytail darters. In February, following an announcement early this year that the lake would be kept at a lower level this coming summer to protect the duskytail darters, McConnell, blaming the Environmental Protection Agency, called the decision “absurd.” Borrowing an assessment by Carolyn Mounce, executive director, Somerset-Pulaski Convention and Visitors Bureau, McConnell said on the Senate floor that letting a 2 1/2 inch minnow hurt businesses in the Lake Cumberland is “Bureaucracy run amok.”
Duskytail darters, an endangered species, moved into a five-mile stretch of the Big South Fork River while Lake Cumberland was being kept at a low level to facilitate repairs to Wolf Creek Dam. The slow-swimming darters thrive in rocky riffles in a flowing river and the minnows’ habitat is destroyed by sediment in lake water. 
When Wolf Creek Dam was fixed and the lake could have returned to normal, environmentalists screamed that the water couldn’t rise over the newly claimed habitat of the duskytail darters. Tourism interests in the Lake Cumberland area cried foul, and their laments reached the Halls of Congress.
Senators McConnell and Rand Paul, both of Kentucky, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Somerset’s Congressman Hal Rogers met with heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in McConnell’s Washington office and hammered out a quick solution to the problem.
“We were forceful,” McConnell told a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal. The quick solution was to seine some of duskytail darters out of the Big South Fork River for propagating and safekeeping and let the lake return to normal levels. It did; that’s why they were celebrating at Lee’s Ford Resort Marina.
Lee Andrews, field supervisor for Kentucky Ecological Services Field Station, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said between 20 and 40 of the federally endangered minnows will be taken later this summer from the Big South Fork River in the Blue Heron area of McCreary County.
“The water is too high now (to seine the minnows),” Andrews said. The lake’s current pool stage has backed water over the newly claimed habitat of the darters in the Big South Fork. Andrews said high water won’t kill the darters but sediment from the lake would eventually degrade the minnows’ habitat.
In normal operation, the lake level is slowly lowered during the summer and late in the season the duskytail darters’ habitat should be exposed and make removing the minnows possible.
Darters from the Big South Fork River initially will be taken to Conservation Fisheries, a non-profit organization based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here, technicians will fine-tune proper techniques for propagating duskytail darters. Excess minnows will be sent to Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery for long-term maintenance,” Andrews said.
 Conservation Fisheries has developed techniques to propagate the region's rarest fishes. The organization’s goal is to restore fish populations that have been eliminated because of pollution or habitat destruction.
Hamilton said he will be happy to go with McConnell to see duskytail darters once the minnows are sent to the National Fish Hatchery for safekeeping.
“Absolutely, I’ll go with him,” laughed Hamilton. No date for the field trip has been set because “ ... I haven’t talked with him since we talked by phone last Friday.” Of course, the field trip will have to wait until they propagate duskytail darters at Knoxville and send some of the minnows to the National Fish Hatchery.
Asked if environmentalists are happy about the duskytail darter solution, Andrews remarked: It’s not ideal, but it’s workable.”