The streams of the rugged Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas are home to one of this country’s rarest fish – the leopard darter (Percina pantherina (Moore and Reeves)). The species only occurs within the Little River drainage and no where else. This small fish, typically less than three inches in length, was placed on the federal list of endangered and threatened species in 1978. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act and Critical Habitat has been designated for more than 140 miles of its remaining range.
Critical Habitat can be designated under the Endangered Species Act for specific areas featuring physical or biological features essential to the species’ conservation and which may require special management considerations or protection. For the leopard darter, Critical Habitat has been designated in Oklahoma as the main channel of the upper Little River above Pine Creek Reservoir and Black Fork Creek, a tributary to the Little River; the Glover River above Oklahoma Highway 3/7 crossing upstream into the main channels of both the East and West Forks of the Glover River; and the main channel of the Mountain Fork.
River above Broken Bow Reservoir to the state line. In Arkansas, leopard darter Critical Habitat is the Mountain Fork River from the state line upstream to the community of Mountain Fork, Arkansas.
This bottom-dwelling fish belongs to the perch family and is distantly related to the walleye and sauger. Its top and sides are marked with dark spots, blotches and saddles that resemble a leopard’s spots. The darter tends to be light olive above the lateral row of spots and whitish below. Also in keeping with its cat name, they seem curious and will actually swim out of cover to look at divers during surveys.
Leopard darters occur within the upper reaches of the Little River system and its tributaries. In addition to the areas designated as Critical Habitat, they are also found in the Robinson Fork of the Rolling Fork River and the Cossatot River above Gillham Reservoir. Several larger tributaries of the upper Little River and the Mountain Fork River also contain year-around populations of this fish.
The darter’s stream habitat consists of small rivers to large streams with moderately steep gradients. Streambeds contain rubble/cobble (3 to 10 inches in size), boulders (10-70 inches in size) and interspersed bedrock outcroppings. Except during spawning season (early March to late April), leopard darters are not found in high velocity areas but rather in backwater pools, and main channel and weedbed margins in low to no velocity water.
Leopard darters were listed as Threatened because their existence is in jeopardy due to habitat being altered or destroyed. Reservoir construction and changes in water quality and flows downstream from these reservoirs have impacted their distribution and isolated their populations above the reservoirs in five or the six rivers in which they occur. Only the Glover River remains undammed. Water quality and sedimentation issues also are a major factor in the recovery of this species.
During the recent land exchange with Weyerhaeuser, 14 miles of leopard darter Critical Habitat were acquired and added to the Ouachita National Forest. Since 1992, the Forest has been working closely with the Tulsa, OK, Endangered Species Office of the US Fish & Wildlife Service on a number of projects. Annual joint range-wide surveys are conducted of the darter’s populations. Several new sites have been found where leopard darters occur and new life history information has been discovered. The Forest has also worked with Dr. Henry Robison from Southern Arkansas University (Magnolia) and the staff of the Cossatot River State Park Natural Area to complete a study of the fishes of the Cossatot including identifying the exact range of the darter in the river. Several research projects have been conducted to look at leopard darter movements in streams, their genetic characteristics in the various rivers, and population densities. Studies will continue to assess the impact of low water crossings on fish movements at the various low water crossings in these drainages. Much remains to be done to remove the threats to the continued existence of this species, but population recovery remains the goal.
The photo is of a leopard darter captured, photographed in a specially designed aquarium and released alive. This darter was captured from the Mountain Fork River at the "Narrows Crossing" above Broken Bow Reservoir, September 23, 1998 by Forest Fisheries Biologist, Richard Standage. This work was conducted under an Oklahoma Scientific Collectors Permit that authorized capturing and releasing this threatened species. Leopard darters may only be observed and are not to be captured and handled without the appropriate state and federal permits.