Monday, July 02, 2007

B'ham News - Preserve God's Tapestry in Alabama

My latest Commentary in the Birmingham News

We must preserve God's vibrant tapestry in this state

Sunday, June 10, 2007

To look around at the richness of Alabama's diversity of plants and animals is to be struck by the awesome responsibility of preserving God's vibrant tapestry in this state.

That's not an idle concern for Bishop Heron Johnson, pastor of the Faith Apostolic Church in Powderly, concerning the endangered watercress darter: "I think, if you have something this valuable and God-given, something this special, you've got to protect it. But where to begin?"

The rare and colorful two-inch watercress darter was found in a local Jefferson County spring that originates on the property of Bishop Johnson's church.

Johnson doesn't ask why we should care about a fish no bigger than an index finger, but rather where we begin the process of ensuring its survival. Alabama is blessed with more different kinds of fish, turtles, crayfish, snails and mussels than any other state in the United States. Our biodiversity is what makes this place special. Protection of these gifts is a difficult and challenging responsibility. But we must find a place to begin.

Perhaps we should begin by taking the lead from the many people who have dedicated their lives to preserving the watercress darter.

Recently, I was treated to a fascinating story by Mike Howell, the retired fish biologist who discovered the watercress darter and a beloved teacher from Samford University. He told of how a generation of Alabamians took responsibility for one of the state's tiniest citizens, and saved it.

His tale began more than 43 years ago when he was a graduate student at the University of Alabama under Herb Boschung, a scientist many consider the father of fish biology in this state.

In 1964, scientists from Tulane University had found a new species of salamander in Jefferson County springs near Bessemer. Following up on the new discovery, Howell and a fellow graduate student Dale Caldwell were asked by Boschung to venture into the same place the salamanders were found, but this time they were dipping their nets to find fish.

You can only imagine the breathtaking excitement and wonder that the two graduate students felt when their dip nets revealed a species never before seen or described in science - the watercress darter. For a fish biologist it must have felt like Columbus on first seeing the New World.

"The world's greatest artists couldn't dream up the (watercress darter's) colors. A visual treat that does something to the spirit - like a beautiful sunset," Howell told me.

Little did Howell know at the time, but his discovery of the rainbow-colored, two-inch darter would have a dramatic impact on his life and the lives of so many others.

After its discovery, Howell spent a couple of years describing, naming and making "known" to science the watercress darter. A specimen of the darter was even sent to the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. More importantly, after the discovery process was complete, the real work of saving the watercress darter began in earnest.

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act became the law of the land. Shortly after its passage, the watercress darter was listed as endangered, the first fish in Alabama to be so protected. This action led to the creation of a watercress darter recovery team headed by Howell. Their task was simple: to monitor and take care of the darter.

Immediately, the scientists and conservationists worked to enhance the darter's habitat, taking out a small dam. The group also removed predatory bass from the darter's stream. After additional research and exploration, the darter also was discovered in a nearby Bessemer spring fed lake and subsequently in the Roebuck and Powderly areas of Jefferson County.

The watercress darter was even transplanted into springs near Turkey Creek where scientists were fortunate to discover two additional endangered fish, the Vermillion and Rush darters. These three darter species are found only in one place in the world: right here in our region's creeks and streams.

Seven years after the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the watercress darter's habitat was permanently protected when federal conservation funds were made available to preserve approximately 23 acres of watercress darter habitat in Jefferson County. The area was then designated as the Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge, the smallest National Wildlife Refuge in the nation.

Today, local groups and communities have become guardians of the darter. In 2002, the Faith Apostolic Church congregation lovingly embraced the watercress darter as a sacred reminder of God's creation and our responsibility to care for it. They enlisted local friends like the Freshwater Land Trust that developed ways the church can protect the stream, the land, and the fish.

Birmingham Audubon members have for years adopted the Bessemer site, keeping a watchful eye on the refuge, removing litter while enjoying the birds that visit the area. Along with these groups, the Freshwater Land Trust, Samford University, Birmingham-Southern College, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Alabama's Department of Conservation have joined forces on behalf of the darter.

Asked why he put such an effort into saving this one, tiny creature, Howell replied, "God put us in the most beautiful garden and told us to take care of it. That fish is an extension of the Garden of Eden."

Now, that is a place to begin. Ecologist Pat Byington is a senior associate with the Wilderness Society. E-mail:

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