Endangered Florida fish bounces back

How Eglin Golf Course helped a multi-agency effort to turn the Okaloosa Darter's fortunes around


Filed to: Wildlife, Florida

Eglin Air Force Base officials and agency officials examining fish at Eglin Golf Club
Eglin Air Force Base officials and representatives from other cooperating agencies peer into a “skylight” at Eglin Golf Club. The turf-level cutouts allow light to filter into the culvert below, illuminating the watery trip from one side of the Eagle course’s 14th fairway to the other. Photo courtesy of Bill Tate

The removal of a species from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife generally is cause for mourning or celebration.

In the case of the Okaloosa darter — a tiny, 2-inch fish found almost exclusively in the streams at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. — it was the latter, even if there weren’t many folks aware of the conservation work happening on this military training land.

“A lot of biologists see species going in the other direction,” says Bill Tate, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is stationed at Eglin. “I’m one of the lucky ones. The Okaloosa darter was listed as endangered in 1973, the year the Endangered Species Act came out, so it’s been 50 years, with 30 years of extremely hard work to get this thing off the list, with dedication from the Air Force, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and others to get the work done. There’s probably been only seven fish removed from the endangered species list ever — from recovery, not extinction. I don’t like to count those. And the Okaloosa darter was the first to be recovered from military lands, so we were really proud to show we can recover species with no net loss to the military.”

And the celebration?

“It was one of those situations where, there are so few of us,” Tate says. “As an endangered species biologist, when you make it to the finish line, there’s not really a playbook what you do. You look around and say, ‘Now what?’ There’s continued monitoring that has to happen. And I’m moving on to other species, a whole new suite of challenges. I’m looking at the future, moving on to bats and butterflies and all kinds of different things.”

While there well could be more success stories from Eglin’s corner of the country, for now the Okaloosa darter has its moment all to itself, and a golf course was at the center of the fish’s return from the brink of extinction.

Back in 1973, biologists estimated only 1,500 Okaloosa darters remained darting about the six streams that made up their natural habitat. Ninety percent of those streams were found at Eglin AFB, the largest Air Force base in the world located in the Florida panhandle about 50 miles east of Pensacola. The biggest cause of the darters’ diminishment was stream siltation, improperly placed culverts and reduced vegetative cover, according to the USFWS.

And Eglin Golf Course, with its two 18-hole courses, was at the epicenter.

“It was very evident that something had to be done to the creeks and the culvert system that connected the creeks,” says Paul Wargo, CGCS, a 35-year GCSAA member who just retired after 20 years at Eglin GC.

Eglin AFB’s environmental staff and the USFWS drafted an Okaloosa Darter Recovery Plan in the early 1990s. The multiagency effort resulted in restored and rerouted creeks around and through the golf course — and one feature believed to be unique in the world of fish conservation efforts.

An aerial view of the facility shows the northern course, Falcon, mostly avoids the streams. But Eagle cut over, around and through the crucial Mill Creek, impounding it and curtailing the flowing water vital to the Okaloosa darter. Part of the project involved not just making the darter streams better, but also longer. But the fairway on Falcon’s 14th hole threatened to halt the second part of that mission until it was suggested a culvert, some 200 feet long, be installed under the fairway.

There was only one problem.

“You need light in there,” Tate says. “If you’re a 3-inch little brown fish, swimming in a big, dark hole isn’t good from a predator-prey standpoint. I didn’t want to have to put working lights in there, because I was the one who’d have to go in there and fix them every time they’d break. Somebody came up with the idea that we’d put skylights in the culvert.”

And that’s how Eglin GC’s Eagle course’s 14th fairway came to have nearly 3-foot-circumference “skylights” made on-base from the same material as F-15 fighter jet canopies, Tate says, cut into tops of the culvert at turf level. (Coincidentally, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 is known as the Eagle.)

“We’d done a lot of big culverts before. It’s not uncommon to do some with electric lights,” Tate says. “To my knowledge, this was the first time it had been done with skylights, and I’m sure it’s the first time it had been done on a golf course.”

Wargo says they’re “inconspicuous” and not at all like the effect of a glass-bottom boat.

“You’re looking from a lighted area, from the daylight, down into a darker hole,” Wargo says, noting the skylights were designed to be strong enough to survive the stress of the equipment that must drive over them. “And the glass fogs up easily. It’s not like a viewing area for the public. You can’t really see anything. That would be cool if it could be like a viewing-scape, but that’s not what it is.”

Tate is aware some might question whether it was worth it, given the limited range of the darter, whose population has swelled to an estimated 600,000. Would the world really notice if the tiny fish had simply gone away?

“I get that question a lot,” he says. “In this case, the fish is an indicator there’s a much larger, systemic problem with the environment. It’s not just this one animal doing poorly. It’s a whole house-of-cards things. You take one out, it might not do anything. But sooner or later, the whole house of cards comes down.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.