December 9, 2009 15:56 Age: 4 yrs

Turner Clinic Case is a Big Deal for Little Fish

By: Larry Sanders

Vermilion darter

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate critical habitat for the Vermilion darter, a small fish that lives in one creek on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 3. The proposal, which will take another year to finalize, is more than eight years overdue and came as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Turner Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Like many southern fish species, the Vermilion darter is a small, brightly colored fish whose life history is virtually unknown to science. By the time it was discovered and formally identified, the Vermilion darter was already endangered because of human-caused alterations of its habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate all of the areas occupied by the Vermilion darter—a total of 13.1 stream miles—as critical habitat.

As critical habitat designations go, the Vermilion darter designation is tiny, but it may prove decisive in the ongoing effort to preserve the species from extinction. Likewise, the Vermilion darter case was a small matter for the Turner Clinic. But small cases can provide valuable opportunities for our students.

One of our students, Matt Barrett 08L, drafted the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Georgia on Nov. 19, 2007. The litigation ended two months after it began when Alice Green 08L negotiated a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service, requiring a final habitat designation by Nov. 13, 2010.

The ultimate survival of the Vermilion darter remains in doubt because of past and continuing urbanization and habitat alteration in the Turkey Creek watershed. A critical habitat designation provides some additional protection to the species, beyond the protections provided to listed species under the endangered species act, but it is only one step in the larger effort to preserve and restore the Vermilion darter.

The next, and much greater, challenge for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity (and possibly the Turner Clinic), is ensuring that future growth and development within the Turkey Creek watershed is consistent with the long-term survival and recovery of the Vermilion darter.

Larry Sanders is acting director of Emory Law's Turner Environmental Law Clinic.

List: <- Back to: News Releases