The Niangua darter is small, only 4 inches long, but it plays a large role in the Niangua Watershed’s ecosystem.
“It’s been an indicator species for years,” said Craig Fuller, an MDC fisheries management biologist and leader of the Niangua Darter Recovery Team.
The darter’s decline indicated its habitat was also declining. In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the darter as threatened, citing causes such as reservoir construction, general deterioration of stream habitat, and the introduction of nonnative fishes. In 2003, Fuller’s team identified an additional cause: low-water road crossings found throughout the darter’s range.
“These created barriers,” Fuller said, “keeping fish and other aquatic organisms from accessing food, mates, and habitat.”
In 2004, the team developed a solution that would improve the fish’s chances of recovery and benefit the people living, working, and recreating in the Niangua Watershed.
They worked with county and state highway departments as well as private engineers to design better crossings that would allow for the fish’s passage and provide safer bridges for the public.
The team started with the Little Niangua River, replacing 10 road crossings that created barriers. The team completed the first replacement in 2004 and the last in 2013. As a result, they reconnected more than 55 miles of stream habitat.
Next, the team moved into the entire Niangua Watershed, replacing five more low-water crossings. By the end of 2017, they had reconnected an additional 62 miles of Niangua Watershed stream habitat.
2015 monitoring on the Little Niangua River indicated darters were moving into reconnected habitat.
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