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Ellijay, GA
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The holiday darter is one of the types of fish found in the Coosawattee River system that is on the state’s list of endangered species. Below, Brett Albanese and Deb Weiler seine Talking Rock Creek while looking for rare aquatic species. (Photos provided by Georgia Department of Natural Resources)

Georgia DNR

Scientists have long known there was gold in the Coosawattee. The north Georgia river system coursing through the Appalachian foothills is one of two places on Earth where goldline darters are found.
Yet Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) surveys in the Coosawattee and its tributaries have mined a wealth of aquatic creatures that reaches beyond the federally listed goldline darters. Finds include three more protected darter species, plus mussels documented for the first time above Carters Lake.
Dr. Brett Albanese, senior aquatic zoologist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, said the discoveries not only expand the range of the rare species, they spur hope “that having more of them present in the basin will help increase conservation efforts” in the Coosawattee system.
With the Ellijay and Cartecay rivers merging to form the Coosawattee in Ellijay, the system drains southwest to Carters Lake, and continues beyond the reservoir to join the Conasauga River near New Echota. One Coosawattee claim to fame is that the river helped inspire “Deliverance.” Another claim: Goldline darters, slim fish dabbed gold on the sides and classed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, exist only here and in Alabama’s Cahaba River system.
As part of a project to assess the darters’ status, the Nongame Conservation Section began surveying the Coosawattee in 2009. That work, covered in a recent journal article, documented a stable population upstream of Carters Lake, but rated the species possibly extirpated in the lower Coosawattee and Talking Rock Creek, a major tributary.
   Those data are crucial for conserving goldlines. But surveys provided more, thanks to partners including The Nature Conservancy, the Georgia Museum of Natural History and the Coosawattee Watershed Alliance.
   Although researchers didn’t capture goldline darters downstream of Carters Lake, they did net three other rare darter species: the federally endangered amber darter and state-endangered freckled and trispot darters. This represents the first documented occurrences of amber and freckled darters in the Coosawattee system and a considerable increase in the global range of the amber darter.
Also, when a survey crew searching for state-listed holiday darters spotted mussel shells in the Ellijay River and Boardtown Creek, biologists followed this year and quickly found populations of two mussel species never collected upstream of Carters – the federally threatened finelined pocketbook and state-endangered Alabama creekmussel. They even documented the Etowah heelsplitter, a species of special concern that also may have not been documented upstream of the reservoir.
DNR mussel specialist Jason Wisniewski said what interests him even more is the size of the mussels. They’re small. And for these long-lived creatures, smaller means younger.
What researchers saw, Wisniewski said, is evidence of a reproducing population of mussels. “That’s what is really important.”
It’s also not all they saw in the Coosawattee system. 
In 2009, three eastern hellbenders were caught in the Cartecay River, the first occurrence of this mega-salamander in the Mobile River basin, which includes the Coosawattee. A genetic study suggests ties to hellbenders in the Toccoa River. What’s not known is whether the Cartecay hellbenders dispersed naturally from the Toccoa system or whether people introduced them to the Cartecay.
Also, joined by Georgia College professor Dr. Chris Skelton, surveyors found Coosawattee and beautiful crayfish, two species that – like eastern hellbenders – are petitioned for federal listing.
According to Albanese, part of the big picture is the need for further research. “All of these discoveries lead to more information needs.”
And more emphasis on conserving the system anchored by the Coosawattee, home to more than 70 native fishes. Threats include habitat loss to urbanization and agricultural impacts such as runoff.
Having sound information on species of concern, including how rare they may or may not be, is critical for managing them and deciding whether or not they warrant federal listing.  
The key, said Wisniewski, “is doing what’s necessary from the conservation standpoint to try and preserve those populations, and document as many as you can so you know where they are.”
Along the Coosawattee, that story of deliverance is just being written. 

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