By Janet Burkitt and Mitchell Carter
The Maryland darter, an obscure finger-length relative of the perch that hasn’t been seen in nearly a decade, is at the center of a controversy pitting farmers against bureaucrats against conservationists.
Farmers in eastern Harford County want the darter declared extinct so they can use more pesticides. But federal officials won’t declare it extinct without a search, and they say they don’t have the money.
A Minnesota-based conservation group is willing to conduct the search for free, but it needs a permit. And state officials are reluctant to give permission to a group they don’t know, fearful that a search for the elusive darter could harm it.
There have been few documented sightings of the Maryland darter since the first one in 1912. Half a century passed before the next reported sighting in 1962. The last sighting was in 1988. All have been in Harford County streams: Swan Creek, Gashey’s Run and Deer Creek.
The Maryland Farm Bureau, a lobbying group representing 15,500 farmers, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last summer to have the darter removed from the List of Threatened and Endangered Species and declared extinct.
With the darter out of the way, farmers would not be subject to a 1991 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline that asks farmers to refrain from using 44 listed chemicals near the habitat of the Maryland darter.
The guidelines are voluntary, but could become mandatory once the Endangered Species Act is renewed by Congress, said Larry Turner, project manager of the EPA’s Endangered Species Protection Program.
In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the Farm Bureau’s petition, saying more study was needed before any conclusions could be reached about the darter’s existence.
“It’s hard to prove extinction,” said Andy Moser, a biologist with the service. “At least 10 years usually have to go by before a lot of experts will consider a fish extinct, because there’s always the possibility they will reappear.”
The agency once provided modest funding for darter research, but with an updated Endangered Species Act mired in Congress since 1992, funding has been unavailable, Turner said. A sampling would cost up to $1,000 a day for the scientists, equipment and boats needed for a proper survey, said Richard Raesly, a biology professor at Frostburg State University.
Raesly, whose survey of Deer Creek in 1988 led to the last darter sighting, said the nearby Susquehanna River offers the best bet for new discoveries.
Given the Farm Bureau’s interest in seeing the darter declared extinct, Raesly suggested that it might pick up the tab for a sampling.
“If they really want to find out about this thing, maybe they would provide some funding,” he said.
But Farm Bureau spokesman Mike Eckert said the government should bear the burden of proving the darter’s existence.
Funding is not a problem for the North American Native Fish Association. John Bondhus, president of the Minnesota-based organization of fish enthusiasts, said his group has the time, money and know-how to do a sampling, but has been unable to get a permit from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“Ninety-five percent of the work is getting permission from the government and that’s what is so frustrating,” Bondhus said. “I mean, here you have this fish that’s possibly extinct, and if it’s not it’s getting more endangered every day and the government is just dragging their feet.”
Association member Konrad Schmidt has written to the state three times since January.
“It’s rankling when we’re trying to help the government and they don’t respond,” he said. “We know they’re strapped, and we do have the resources and expertise. We do this as a labor of love. We want to help the government protect the darter.”
Janet McKegg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources, said state officials are moving slowly on the group’s application because they are unfamiliar with the association and are worried about harming the fish.
Meanwhile, farmers are anxious to get the issue resolved. They have been following the EPA guidelines as if they were codified, according to Eckert, but still see them as an unnecessary intrusion on their farming practices.
“People say we ought to do certain things on our farms because of the darter,” said Sam Foard, a corn and bean farmer whose land is divided by Deer Creek. “Farmers are an independent group of people and they resent a lot of government regulation. Especially arbitrary regulations for something like this that might not even be real.”
The Farm Bureau does not consider the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision the end of the story. “We’re regrouping right now,” said spokeswoman Valerie Greene. “We’re definitely going to resubmit.”