A little fish catches military's eye

Eglin Air Force Base finds that helping the Okaloosa darter is in its best interest.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 19, 2007

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE - Learning to bomb enemies out of existence is kind of a way of life at Eglin Air Force Base.

From gargantuan bunker busters to the Air Force's vaunted "smart bombs," more weaponry is exploded and developed at the 724-square-mile base than just about any place on the planet.

"We're the military," said Mike Spaits, an environmental spokesman for Eglin. "We like to blow things up."

So where would one of the most fragile, reclusive and endangered fish in North America live?

Why at Eglin, of course.

This is the unlikely story of a scrawny fish called the Okaloosa darter, typically shorter than a stick of gum, and the world's mightiest Air Force. It's about two seemingly awkward companions that learned to share the same slice of real estate on Florida's Panhandle.

Improbably, the darter has been brought back from the edge of extinction.

And in July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the species be downlisted from endangered to threatened.

It's happening because a military Goliath, biologists say, figured out how to be a good neighbor to the skinny kid next door.

"It's pretty cool that we could do this on a military base when some people said it was too big a mountain to climb," said Bill Tate, a fishery biologist with the wildlife service. "If you can do this here, you can do it anywhere."

The fish's fall and rise

The darter is something of a quirky fish.

Unlike many species, it lays individual eggs on plants. It doesn't like to cross open streams without the cover of vegetation. It might spend much of its life on only one side of a creek.

Up to 95 percent of the Okaloosa darter's habitat falls within the watershed of six streams on Eglin, the rest on neighboring land, and nowhere else on Earth.

The fish blends into its habitat to defend itself from predators. Once vegetation dies, the darter dies, too.

The Air Force says the degradation of the darter's habitat began long before Eglin existed. But major degradation came with the military's arrival in the mid 1930s.

Dirt roads cutting through the forest and more than 100 clay pits to provide material for those roads led to erosion and a buildup of silt in streams, eliminating crucial plant life.

When the Endangered Species List was created in 1973, the darter went right on it and never left. At its nadir, perhaps 1,500 fish survived.

An environmental awakening, some say, came to the military slowly, prompted perhaps by more stringent environmental laws starting in the 1970s.

"A lot of them came kicking and screaming," Tate, the wildlife service biologist, said of those early days. "But the military's changing."

The Air Force says it wants to be a good steward of the land, and is working with the wildlife service and others to save the darter. But it also concluded that a thriving darter made its job easier.

"The reason we do this stuff isn't because we're bleeding-heart tree huggers," said Spaits, the Eglin spokesman. "We're doing it to allow more flexibility for the mission."

With an endangered species comes more regulation. Troops, for example, might not be able to cross a stream during a march if the fish within it are endangered. The Air Force might be forced to build a bridge.

"If the darter's abundant and thriving, we don't have to build that bridge," said Spaits.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Air Force began to close little-used dirt roads that were eroding into streams. It closed dozens of clay pits. It re-evaluated its land management.

Eglin planted vegetation and reworked the contour of the land to direct drainage away from darter habitat. Misplaced culverts were removed or repaired. Millions were spent on erosion control.

The biggest challenge came at a base golf course, especially where a culvert directed a darter stream under a fairway. Closing the course wasn't an option.

But opening the culvert to let the stream take its natural course would have split the fairway in a ball-landing area.

So the tunnel was widened. And skylights made from material used in fighter canopies provide sunlight for vegetation and darters who are normally afraid of the dark spaces where predators hide.

"We've basically built a very large terrarium," said Tate.

Results have been dramatic. The darter population has climbed up to 500,000 and the wildlife service may downlist it from endangered to threatened within a year, Tate said.

Delisting it completely, once a distant hope, is now a reachable goal.

Usually wary environmentalists praise the Air Force's efforts.

"The military protecting the environment is not an oxymoron," said Brock Evans, president of the Endangered Species Coalition. "They're human. And they love and care for the environment in the same proportion as the rest of us."

The military occupies 25-million acres nationally, and up to 80 percent of it is pristine land.

At Eglin, only one-eighth of the base is used for military activity. And that land is home to 11 endangered species, from the bald eagle to the red-cockaded woodpecker.

To Tate, the darter is a key indicator of the overall health of the environment and is well worth saving.

"It's the canary," he said, "in the coal mine."