By John McFerrin
The United States Forest Service has withdrawn a proposal to timber approximately 2400 acres in the Monongahela National Forest because of concerns about a fish, the endangered candy darter
The proposal was a part of the Big Rock project area. The Big Rock project area is within the Gauley Ranger District on the Monongahela National Forest. The project is located in western Nicholas and southern Webster Counties in the Cranberry River watershed north of Richwood.
The project would have involved a series of clear cuts totaling about 1200 acres as well as about 1200 acres of thinning. Of this, over 600 acres would be helicopter logged. According to the Forest Service, the goal was to modify that part of the Forest so that it supports different types of wildlife.
The candy darter is a small freshwater fish native to the Gauley, Greenbrier, and New River watersheds. Although darters in general make up 20 percent of freshwater fish species in North America, candy darters are found nowhere else.
The candy darter is small, measuring only 2-3 inches (55-86 millimeters) in length. This colorful fish prefers shallow, fast flowing stream reaches with rocky bottoms. Candy darters live up to 3 years and begin breeding around 2 years of age. Spawning in mid- to late spring, candy darters are brood-hiding, bottom spawners. Females select areas of finer pebble and gravel among riffles to deposit their eggs.
Candy darters were likely once relatively common throughout their range. Historical habitat degradation and fragmentation led certain populations to dwindle or even cease to exist. Nearly half of the 35 candy darter populations known when the species was first described in 1932 have now disappeared.
In 2010 the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the candy darter listed as an endangered species. After skome litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, it was finally listed as an endangered species in 2018.
Projects such as the Big Rock project include several opportunities for public participation. The Forest Service does what is called a “scoping”, when it asks for public suggestions on what it should study in evaluating a proposed project. It also makes a Draft Environmental Assessment and accepts comments on that. After reviewing the comments, the Forest Service makes a response and then makes a final Environmental Assessment.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy made comments on the draft Environmental Assessment. Although the Forest Service did make some changes in its plans in response to those comments, the changes were insufficient to address our objections. When the final Environmental Assessment came out, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy made a formal objection, as did the Friends of Blackwater, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Dick Artley
After these comments, the next step would have been for the Forest Service to respond to the comments. Instead of responding, the Forest Service announced on December 18, 2019, that it was abandoning the project. It is now listed on the Forest Service website as cancelled.
Although the commenters, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, raised issues other than the candy darter, Forest Service relied entirely upon the presence of the candy darter as the basis for abandoning the project. Once a species is listed as endangered, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service would routinely do a critical habitat designation. Although at the time the Forest Service abandoned the Big Rock project there had been no final designation, it was clear that the site of the Big Rock project would be part of the fish’s critical habitat.
With the Big Rock project part of the critical habitat, the United States Fish and Wildlife would have needed to consider the appropriateness of an incidental take permit for the project. An incidental take permit allows someone to “take” a limited number of individuals of an endangered species if the taking is incidental to another activity and not the goal of the activity. “Take” is defined as the “harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, collecting of a listed species”, or any “attempt to engage in such conduct. Since killing candy darters would not be the goal of the Big Rock project but only an incidental effect, it would be possible that the Fish and Wildlife Service could issue an incidental take permit.
The presence of the endangered candy darter triggers all of these obligations. Since the Forest Service had not even started on any of these obligations, it had no choice other than abandoning the project.