An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Tiny fish swims off the endangered species list

  • Published
  • By Aneta Veedmont
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

A decades long partnership between the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has brought one tiny Florida fish back from the brink of extinction. 

The Okaloosa darter, a two-inch perch-like fish found only in the streams at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was removed from the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife June 28 thanks to the dedication of dozens of partners during the 30-plus-year conservation effort.   

“We are very proud of this remarkable accomplishment and grateful for everyone’s contribution in the recovery of the Okaloosa darter,” said Col. Paul Fredin, acting director of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center Environmental Management Directorate. “Our conservation mission continued as the Air Force’s environmental program kept evolving and expanding to protect our nation’s natural resources and military mission.”

AFCEC’s Environmental Management Directorate, part of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, assists base-level environmental experts with the planning, programming, budgeting and execution of installation natural resources requirements. The AFIMSC team ensures DAF installations have the necessary expertise, resources and support to balance environmental stewardship with the needs of the Air Force mission.  

The Okaloosa darter was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1973, after the population dramatically shrunk and faced extinction due to habitat loss. Stream siltation from Eglin’s unpaved range-roads, reduced vegetative cover on testing ranges, improperly placed culverts and temperature changes had a direct effect on habitat destruction. 

Eglin’s environmental professionals partnered with USFWS to map an Okaloosa Darter Recovery Plan in the early 1990s, leading the way for species recovery through aquatic monitoring, erosion control and wildfire management measures. 

Bruce Hagedorn, Eglin Natural Resources chief and one of the professionals who started the Okaloosa Darter Recovery Plan 30 years ago, said it is extremely satisfying to see the project through to completion. 

“When I joined the team in early 1990s, we couldn’t imagine getting the species off of the list, and now we are there,” he said. “I swore I would not retire until the fish got delisted.” 

The species recovery, according to Hagedorn, is the result of tireless efforts of many past and present employees who contributed “blood, sweat and probably a few tears.”

“I’m extremely proud of the team and how we all stayed focused over the years. But even more personally, it means that now I can retire if I want to,” he joked. 

Air Force installations like Eglin AFB are home to 123 of the more than 2,000 species on the USFWS’s endangered species list, with habitats spanning various landscapes across nine million acres at 54 installations. 

The Okaloosa darter recovery is a perfect example of how improvements to natural and built infrastructure in support of the military mission can contribute to the recovery of an endangered species, said Karla Meyer, Air Force natural resources subject matter expert at AFCEC.  

“Through AFCEC-supported integrated natural resources management plans and close partnerships, our environmental team helps installations protect a diverse range of at-risk species, from the Okaloosa darter and red-cockaded woodpecker at Eglin to the Sonoran Pronghorn found on a tactical range near Luke Air Force Base (Arizona),” she said.

Part of the AFCEC Environmental Management Directorate Installation Support Section, stood up in 2012 to centralize and standardize environmental support to all Air Force installations, assisted Eglin’s team of biologists in their restoration efforts by developing budgets and addressing programming issues. 

 “At AFCEC, we help advocate for Air Force installation projects, such as those at Eglin, so the base can move their environmental projects forward while keeping the mission going,” Meyer said.

The assistance AFCEC’s team provides can help installations develop plans, review contracts, find execution agents and acquire funding. At Eglin, that support enabled infrastructure and environmental projects such as road and drainage repairs to eliminate runoff contamination of the six creeks where the Okaloosa darter is found, in addition to vegetation planting to minimize stream erosion.

The team’s recovery efforts prompted the USFWS to downlist the Okaloosa darter to threatened in 2011. The Service proposed to remove the species from federal protection in 2021 when the population skyrocketed to more than 600,000 darters. The Okaloosa darter is the first fish that exists exclusively on Department of Defense land to have been delisted and the fourth recovered species on Air Force-managed land. 

“The milestone we are celebrating reinforces the importance of the Air Force’s partnerships with federal, local, state and private citizens,” Meyer said. “These relationships protect our natural and cultural resources and keep the Air Force mission in flight.”