The headwaters of the Kentucky River Basin reach a nexus in the heart of Appalachia: the northern Tennessee and southeastern Kentucky border, where a series of streams and shallow pools swirl and eddy. It is a countryside that seethes with abundance, a biodiversity richer than any on the North American continent. The arrow darter is a native to these creeks and seeps that snake about remote forests. Protecting the darter’s habitat would protect habitat for a suite of other rare species, including aquatic insects, crustaceans, fish, salamanders and other amphibians. These species in turn are an important food source for birds, reptiles and mammals of the region.
The darter thrives in shallow pools, migrating to stands of water no deeper than 15 centimeters during the mating season. Darters quiver and dash in elaborate mating rituals. Though typically colored a pale yellow or green, they develop bright spots and stripes of blue, orange, and scarlet to attract their mates.
A subspecies of perch, male arrow darters defend their nests— a behavior that is quite rare in fish. Males establish their territories and defend their eggs until they’ve hatched.
Threats Faced From Fossil Fuel Exploitation
Mountaintop removal coal mining uses explosives to blast off a mountain’s summit—hundreds of vertical feet—to expose the underlying coal. The mining waste is then pushed directly into nearby streams, permanently filling in the streams and poisoning downstream wildlife and human communities. More than 500 mountaintops and 2,000 miles of stream have already been permanently destroyed.
The Kentucky arrow darter is being buried and poisoned for cheap coal. Disturbingly, mountaintop removal occurs throughout the fish’s range. There are currently more than 465 active coal-mining permits in the upper Kentucky River basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the arrow darter has already been wiped out from more than half of its range. In the most recent survey, the darter was found in only 33 of its 68 historic streams.
Since the Kentucky arrow darter is merely a candidate and hasn’t made it to the endangered and threatened species list, it receives no regulatory protection. The Environmental Protection Agency has recently taken steps to attempt to reduce water pollution caused by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, but these efforts are under political attack.
Ironically, while the darter’s mountain streams lack legal protection, they provide crucial benefits for humans. Protecting the arrow darter and its habitat would protect drinking water by preserving ecologically critical headwater streams. In some eastern Kentucky counties, more than 20 percent of the land has already been permitted for surface coal mining. Appalachian streams, which have been polluted by coal mining have also been linked to human health impacts, such as increases in cancer and birth defects. For that reason, the remaining headwater streams are of critical importance to the well-being of both the neighboring human communities and wildlife.