Sunken Treasure of the Southern Appalachians

The Little Tennessee River Basin is a treasure trove of aquatic biodiversity, and a novel partnership has come together to help ensure it stays that way.

Beneath their roaring rapids and shimmering surfaces, the streams of Southern Appalachia hide a little-known treasure.  The hundreds of spring-fed rivers that crisscross this mountainous region are home to one of the most diverse arrays of aquatic species found anywhere in the temperate world.  A unique combination of highly varied topography, a relatively stable climate, and refugia for species during periods of glaciation have come together to make the Southern Appalachian mountains the perfect home for hundreds of species of fish, mussels, crayfish, aquatic insects and more.

One of the jewels in this crown of biodiversity is the Little Tennessee River Basin.  With headwaters in north Georgia, the “Little T” flows north for seven miles before crossing into North Carolina.  From there it snakes another 125 miles southwest before it crosses into Tennessee, where it joins the Tennessee River.  On this journey, it is joined by many tributaries large and small, and together they comprise the Little T River Basin.  With more than 100 species of native fish, 10 native mussels and a dozen native crayfish, the basin has been designated a global biological hotspot. Experts believe that some river reaches within the basin still hold the same array of species that they did before the arrival of the first European settlers.

A Treasure Trove of Scales and Fins

Spend just one day on the Little T and you’ll know it’s a truly special place.  But most of the folks who visit the Little T Basin to hike, bike, kayak, camp, or even fish for bass and trout, leave without ever glimpsing its greatest treasure.  To do that, you need to peek below the surface.

It’s a whole different world down there, fast-moving and turbulent, unbelievably full of life.  Unique, beautiful and sometimes bizarre critters are everywhere you turn, hiding in rock crevices, basking in shallow eddies, or furiously fighting the midstream current.  On a good day you’d be likely to spot several species of darters and shiners; small, vibrantly colored fish that prefer clear waters flowing over gravel beds, and hunt for mayflies or other small aquatic insects.

© Derek Wheaton, Enchanting Ectotherm Photography

Tangerine Darter

If you know just where to look, you might spot the federally threatened yellowfin madtom.  This cryptic catfish only grows to about 4.5 inches, and is extremely good at hiding from prying eyes in debris or rock crevices, and among dense submerged tree roots in shallow pools.  Today it exists in only four small populations, though reintroduction efforts are underway in other portions of its range.

© Conservation Fisheries, Inc.

Yellowfin Madtom,

If you visit in the spring, you might get to witness the river chub, diligently building a nest out of pebbles, hoping to attract a mate with his architectural feat.  Nest-building chubs are important ecosystem engineers; over 30 other species of fish are known to deposit their eggs in chub nests.  Rising in mounds up to two feet high, these piles of pebbles often rise above the silt in degraded streams, creating important “islands” of quality spawning habitat.

Fortunately for these and the many other amazing species that live here, most of the aquatic habitat within the Little T Basin is in very good condition.  Over half of the basin is on public lands; the river and its tributaries flow from three National Forests and parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A full 89% of the basin itself is forested.  These protected lands, combined with historically low development pressure in the region, all contribute to this uniquely high quality habitat that supports such tremendous diversity.

However, the Little T River Basin is not without its challenges.

Double Threat: Dams and Development

For almost a century, dams and reservoirs have been the chief marker of human impact on the Southern Appalachian landscape.  Built to provide hydroelectric power, flood control, recreational opportunities and secure water supplies, these impoundments have a severe impact on the surrounding landscape.

Perhaps most importantly, they fragment habitat, isolating species’ populations upstream from those downstream, and limiting genetic exchange.  They also pose a barrier to the seasonal movements of many species that spawn in one part of a river but forage in another.  Dams alter in-stream dynamics like water temperature and the timing and rate of flows, all of which can impact the availability of food sources and suitable spawning grounds.  Only 47 of the 144 miles of the mainstem Little T are free flowing today, and some of its major tributaries are entirely altered by impoundments and diversions.

An even greater and growing threat, however, is the recent explosion in unregulated development within the basin. Human populations in this once remote basin are growing at an unprecedented rate, and expected to increase 30% by 2020.  The increased urban sprawl tends to be concentrated in the flatter floodplains along the riverbanks, where development leads to loss of riparian habitat and increased erosion of streambanks.  The eroded sediment winds up in the streams, muddying the water and carrying with it pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants.  As a result, water quality in many parts of the Little T basin is declining rapidly, and having significant impacts on the local wildlife.

Partnerships are Making Progress for the Little T

Luckily, many concerned folks know the true value of the Little T Basin’s biological treasure trove. A diverse group of private companies, conservation organizations and government agencies – including Defenders of Wildlife – makes up the Little T Native Fish Conservation Partnership, and this coalition is making definite progress on behalf of the Little T and the fish that call it home. In fact, it was this coalition that helped establish the Little T Native Fish Conservation Area, giving this precious resource official designation and the protection that comes with it. Native Fish Conservation Areas, or NFCAs, are river basins that are managed specifically to protect and restore native fish and aquatic species, and maintain the integrity of key habitats. They do this not through regulation, but by taking a collaborative approach to conservation that incorporates biological needs and local community values – an approach that keeps the work more affordable, and gets great support from the community.

© Derek Wheaton, Enchanting Ectotherm Photography

Striped Shiners and Tennessee Shiners

With that important step accomplished, the Little T Native Fish Conservation Partnership continues to work towards protecting the health of the basin and its species.  Partner organizations are actively pushing for defunct dams and other barriers to be removed from several tributaries of the Little T.  Some of the Partnership’s members are also spearheading a “Shade Your Streams” initiative, partnering with community groups to restore riparian areas by planting native trees and shrubs along degraded stream banks.  And the expanding educational programs, through projects like “Fish in the Classroom”, encourage residents of the river basin to become better stewards of the watershed.

Perhaps the most effective tool to educate and inspire passion for the Little T Basin is the U.S. Forest Service’s free freshwater snorkeling program for visitors to Citico Creek or the Conasauga River in the Cherokee National Forest.  This unique experience opens the eyes of children and adults alike to the truly amazing underwater world of the Little T, and participants regularly comment how amazed and delighted they are to connect to this lesser known aspect of their national forests. One of the Partnership’s goals is to help the US Forest Service expand the snorkeling program across the entire Little T Basin. © Gary Peeples, USFWS

As the Little Tennessee Native Fish Conservation Partnership moves forward, we know that there is still much more work to be done.  The yellowfin madtom and several other species native to the basin are still in very real danger of extinction, and the many challenges facing the watershed could put more of its unique and diverse species on the same path.  We are excited and committed to supporting the Partnership’s collaborative effort to restore and protect the Little Tennessee River Basin, a true biodiversity treasure of Southern Appalachia.