The ashy darter has a wide, but sporadic distribution throughout the upper Cumberland and Tennessee River systems. This enigmatic species usually inhabits relatively silt-free, flowing pools, a habitat type that has been impacted due to poor agricultural practices (clearing of riparian zone leading to increased siltation and warming of rivers) and other non-point sources of pollution. Population declines seen in this species throughout much of its range likely resulted from siltation caused by nonpoint source sediments (Powers et al. 2000), but could be due to stream warming. The ashy darter has disappeared from many of the sites where it was known to occur historically, and has been considered extirpated from Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama (Shepard and Burr 1984; Etnier and Starnes 1993; Boschung 1992). The existence of the ashy darter in Virginia was reconfirmed, though, in 2004 (Pat Rakes, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., pers. comm. 2006). The ashy darter is listed as “threatened” in the State of Tennessee, as a “special concern” species in Kentucky and Virginia, and as “endangered” by the American Fisheries Society (Warren et al. 2000). This species is also a species of management concern for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Region 4, highlighting the importance of acting now to conserve ashy darters in an effort to prevent the need for listing the species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Powers et al. (2004) recommended treating populations of ashy darter from the three main drainages (i.e., the Cumberland, Duck, and Upper Tennessee rivers) where it occurs as separate management units. Indeed, each of the population centers represent distinct genetic entities, as well as displaying different colorations. Powers went on to point out that the upper Tennessee populations were at risk of disappearing. The authors also suggested that 1) brood stock for captive propagation efforts should come from within the major drainage unit to which they would be reintroduced, and 2) offspring produced by captive propagation be released in areas within the historical range of, but not currently occupied by, ashy darters to avoid reductions in the genetically effective size of current populations (Powers et al. 2004).
Ashy darters in the Clinch River are very rare, and the once robust population in Little River (Blount Co., TN) has nearly disappeared. The Little River observations are courtesy of collections made by Dave Etnier of the University of Tennessee. He has made regular collections in Little River for nearly 30 years and has demonstrated a steady decline of this darter. We have made similar observations during other surveys in Little River. In 2011, CFI was contracted by TWRA to breed Little River ashy darters for introduction into Tellico. The 2012 reproduction of the ashy darter yielded 46 ashy darters that we released into Tellico River. We have learned a lot over the years of working with propagation efforts of both the Clinch River ashy darters and the Little River ashy darters and have high hopes that we will improve our methods for 2013.