Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 27, 2022


Meg Townsend, (971) 717-6409,

Lawsuit Seeks Protection for Central Tennessee’s Imperiled Barrens Darter

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s denial of Endangered Species Act protections to the Barrens darter. Named for its home on the Barrens Plateau of central Tennessee, the darter is one of the rarest fish in North America.

“We can’t afford to lose the Barrens darter, but every day these fish aren’t protected makes it more likely that we will,” said Meg Townsend, freshwater attorney at the Center. “As is too often the case, the Fish and Wildlife Service got it wrong when it denied protection to this sweet little fish.”

The Barrens darter has been reduced to living in just a few small headwater streams that feed the Collins River between Nashville and Chattanooga, and its numbers are decreasing. Much of the species’ habitat has been damaged by water pumping for agriculture and livestock grazing, which has widened streams and increased harmful sediments that destroy the darter’s spawning areas.

As a result, two of the darter’s seven surviving populations have recently been lost, and the five that remain survive in fewer than roughly 6 miles of streams. Each population is tiny and isolated from the others, making them more vulnerable to local threats.

“Protecting the Barrens darter and the rest of the Southeast’s disappearing freshwater animals will benefit us all by ensuring there are clean streams for drinking and recreation,” said Townsend. “This isn’t rocket science. We just need to protect streams from harmful activities so these species have space to thrive.”

The Center petitioned the Service in 2010 to protect the darter. Despite agency scientists predicting that two more of the darter’s remaining populations might soon be lost, the Service decided not to protect the species.

The Barrens darter is a unique species in the perch family that produces sounds and is distinguished by the level of parental care the male provides, including nest guarding. A male will establish a territory around a cavity under a flat rock and attract a female based on his body size and the quality of his nest cavity. Males produce knocks, drums, and purrs to court females and defend the nest cavity from other males. Once a female has chosen to spawn with a male, the pair will invert under the rock, and the female will adhere eggs to the underside of the rock in a single layer. The male will clean the eggs and guard them from predators until they hatch.

The Center’s lawsuit was filed in federal district court of Washington, D.C.

Barrens darter. Credit: Bernie Kuhajda, Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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