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U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to Propose Scioto Madtom Is Extinct

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to Propose Scioto Madtom Is ExtinctModel of the Scioto Madtom - Image provided by Marc Kibbey
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to declare that 23 species currently on the endangered species list are now extinct. Among these is the elusive Scioto madtom, a tiny fish only ever found in Ohio’s Big Darby Creek, and unseen by human eyes since 1957. 

“I grew up in Columbus and learned to fish from my father in Big Darby Creek,” said Charlie Wooley, USFWS regional director for the Great Lakes Region, in a press release. “This announcement regarding the Scioto madtom really stings at a personal level, and I’m sorry we have to propose to delist this species due to extinction. Despite the best efforts of state, federal and academic scientists, we have been unable to find any evidence that Scioto madtoms still survive.” 

Angela Boyer, an endangered species coordinator for USFWS, echoed that feeling.

“It’s not a happy day,” said Boyer. “It’s been somber, I guess I’ll put it that way. It’s a species that in the course of my career I was really hoping that we would find, but we never did. So it’s disappointing. But yeah, it’s time to take it off the list. It’s been looked for and looked for and not found, and we really do believe that it’s gone.” 

The Scioto madtom was first discovered by Milton Trautman in 1943. Over the next 14 years, Trautman and his colleagues collected 18 specimens of the madtom—a tiny, mildly venomous creature which is basically a miniature catfish. In 1957 Trautman found the last Scioto madtom and since that time, the fish has completely disappeared. In 1975, the Scioto madtom was listed as endangered due to pollution, siltation and the growing threat of dams and other developments on its only known habitat—Big Darby Creek. 

Since 1957, no shortage of scientists have gone searching for the Scioto madtom. In 1981, Trautman wrote that, “Since 1924…few species of Ohio fishes have been more consistently sought after than this one.” Intensive fish surveys of Big Darby Creek have been conducted since the late 1970s, using every method from seining to dip netting to electrofishing. But despite all of this searching, no one has found a living Scioto madtom since 1957. 

With such a clear lack of evidence that the Scioto madtom still swims along the bottom of the Darby—and plenty of clear evidence that the fish’s habitat has suffered significant damage since it was last seen—removing it from the endangered species list was only a matter of time. 

“We’re taking the action at this time so that we can ultimately focus our time on…other specie, that we’re not doing consultations on species that we don’t believe really are out there anymore,” said Boyer.  

For the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, there’s still a year-long process before Scioto madtom’s extinction becomes official. After publishing the proposal for delisting the madtom and 22 other species, USFWS must solicit public comment or information that either supports or contradicts the proposal. During that time, the Scioto madtom will remain on the endangered species list. 

“If we don’t receive any information that contradicts our decision within a year, I would expect that we would publish a final rule that officially removes the Scioto madtom from the endangered species list,” said Boyer. “Until that happens, it’s still protected under the Endangered Species Act.” 

Of course there is always the glimmer of hope that the endangered Scioto madtom might still survive in some unexplored riffle of Big Darby Creek, even as the unseen humans above declare it extinct. If that is the case—if a live specimen is discovered or some other evidence for its survival appears—there are options available to USFWS to protect the fish. 

“The species could be emergency listed, and that’s where we take the step of immediately listing it as endangered,” said Boyer. “It’s a temporary listing…It buys us a little time to protect the species while we go through the proper listing evaluation…So while we think it’s gone, in the event that it’s found again, we have a process to potentially immediately protect it and then evaluate it for listing.” 

Big Darby Creek remains an essential habitat and ecosystem for a number of endangered and threatened species, including several different kinds of freshwater mussel, as well as the Indiana bat and the Northern long-eared bat, both known to nest along the banks of the stream. According to Boyer, these species are not currently in danger of being delisted due to extinction, and their protected status continues to protect the Big Darby Creek from pollution and development. 

Even still, the Scioto madtom held a special place in Ohio’s ecological story. Its official extinction will be hard to swallow.

“The most focus was on this species,” said Boyer. “Because it was one that we were still holding out hope, we were still asking folks to consider it for projects, so this is really the one that I think has the most, maybe, effect on people in Ohio.”

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