Weapons Testing and Endangered Fish Coexist in Florida
Jelks, Howard, Tate, Bill, Jordan, Frank, Endangered Species Bulletin
Okaloosa darters (Etheostoma okaloosae) are small fish found only in a few streams in the Florida panhandle. This species has been listed since 1973 as endangered due to habitat alteration resulting from erosion, the potential competition from brown darters (E. edwini), and a limited geographic distribution. In recent years, however, Okaloosa darters have benefited from improved resource management and adaptive population monitoring techniques developed collaboratively by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Loyola University New Orleans, and Eglin Air Force Base. As a result, the FWS reclassified the Okaloosa darter to the less critical category of threatened in March 2011.
Okaloosa darters are found in only six coastal stream systems, with a combined length of about 230 miles (400 kilometers), which flow through longleaf pine sandhills. The low nutrient, sandy soils of the region produce relatively clear groundwater-fed streams, interspersed with woody debris and patches of aquatic vegetation. Unfortunately, these sandy soils also are relatively unstable, and certain land use practices resulted in severe erosion and smothering of Okaloosa darter stream habitat.
Over 95 percent of the species' geographic range is on Eglin AFB, where the Air Force conducts its primary mission of full-service air armament development through weapons system research, development, testing, and evaluation.
While fulfilling its military mission, Eglin also manages its natural resources, acting as a steward to protect plants and animals for future generations. Weapons testing and Okaloosa darter recovery may sound incompatible, but Eglin has established partnerships to develop and implement effective natural resources management programs. Working with the FWS and Eglin AFB, USGS and Loyola University researchers provided leadership in helping to form the Okaloosa Darter Recovery Group and draft the 1998 Revised Recovery Plan. Members of the Okaloosa Darter Recovery Group monitor, manage, and direct recovery actions for the species, including the adoption of new techniques for monitoring status and trends.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, USGS and Loyola personnel have worked to develop and refine innovative methods for population monitoring that are more accurate and cause less habitat disturbance than traditional methods (e.g., electrofishing or seining). Researchers using masks, snorkels, and plastic nets have been visually monitoring Okaloosa darter populations on Eglin AFB. …