FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas darters inhabit small, sunlit, spring-fed tributaries often flowing through grasslands throughout the Arkansas River basin from Colorado to northwest Arkansas. Efforts to restore the darter are underway at Wilson Springs Conservation Area in Fayetteville.
Retired U.S. Forest Service biologist Joe Neal described the darter as a “lovely, two-inch long native fish that looks like gold in the shallow clear water where they live.” The Arkansas darter is a candidate for federal endangered species listing and is one of the rarest fishes in Arkansas. Found in only seven areas in the state, including Wilson Springs Conservation Area where they were first discovered in Arkansas in 1979, the species is of special concern, tracked by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and prioritized for conservation need in the Arkansas Wildlife Action Plan.
As home to one of the last populations of Arkansas darter in the state, and one of the last tall grass prairie remnants in the region, Wilson Springs has been the subject of public concern for many years. The namesake Wilson Spring runs from the east. An unnamed tributary comes in from the north. They converge within the conservation area with Clabber Creek, near its headwaters.
Wilson Springs Conservation Area was named for Steve N. Wilson, long-time Arkansas Game and Fish Commission director, who did collegiate graduate research in the area.
This system of spring-fed streams once flowed across undisturbed wetlands, providing the ideal habitat for the Arkansas darter. Land changes due to agriculture conversion and urbanization, however, coupled with fire suppression and lack of maintenance by large grazing herbivores, led to an overgrowth of woody and invasive plant species completely shading the once sunlit stream and raising concern that this population, like others before it, would soon disappear.
After several preservation starts and stops over the span of two decades, the original 289-acre property was reduced to its current and not-quite-contiguous 121 acres. In 2011, ownership and management were transferred to the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust for restoration and permanent protection. A State Wildlife Grant from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, along with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, allowed the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust to begin habitat restoration in 2012. Stream ecologist Dr. Arthur Brown had advised that proper habitat for the darter required sunlight along the spring that would in turn nurture aquatic vegetation required by the darters. Following this advice, recent restoration activities have focused on the removal of understory (dominated by non-native Amur honeysuckle) and trees less than 8 inches in diameter at breast height from the Wilson Spring riparian zone and surrounding 19-acre savannah. This treatment successfully opened the canopy by over 80 percent and with sunlight restored, streamside and aquatic vegetation, including in-stream patches of watercress returned. This provided conditions most suitable to the Arkansas darter. During an October 2014 survey conducted by Mike Slay with The Nature Conservancy and Brian Wagner with the AGFC, 52 darters were netted and quickly released in the newly restored habitat.
While the first phase of restoration netted positive results, there is plenty more to do and future challenges to be met, especially in light of the ever increasing pace of development in the surrounding watershed. A priority for the next phase of restoration is to apply the same clearing treatment to the unnamed tributary which enters the property from the north. This tributary historically served as further refuge for the darter, accommodating the need for seasonal movement between sites.
During the same October 2014 survey, only seven darters were netted in this reach, all in association with limited patches of streamside vegetation where sunlight still manages to penetrate the overgrown canopy. By extending habitat management here, the land trust seeks to expand suitable habitat while also establishing a second refuge in case of threat to either tributary.
The next part of the success story at Wilson Springs involves the plant community, which, like the darter, has responded favorably to the removal of dense overgrowth. Biannual surveys documented the return of native prairie and wetland plant species since restoration began, including four species tracked by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and two new county records. Tracked species include David’s sedge, Hitchcock’s sedge, Swamp Milkweed and Wolf’s Spikerush. New county records include Knotty leaf rush and Grassleaf rush. Continued clearing of the sites’ former tall grass prairie is another top priority for the next phase of restoration. A 35-acre plot is targeted. The relic seed bank is expected to respond with equal vigor.
For more information about the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust or the properties it conserves, visit its website at www.nwalandtrust.org or contact Terri Lane, Executive Director, at 479-966-4666 or firstname.lastname@example.org