After Long Delay, Two|Mussels Have Habitat

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Critical habitat for the endangered Neosho mucket mussel and the threatened rabbitsfoot mussel has now been finalized, two and a half years after it was proposed.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 483 river miles of habitat for the mucket in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and 1,437 river miles for the rabbitsfoot in those states plus Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, according to the action. This is a decrease of 2 river miles for the mucket and 349 river miles for the rabbitsfoot from the Oct. 16, 2012 proposed designation, the agency noted.
     The mussels were listed under the Endangered Species Act on Sept. 17, 2013, due to the loss of over 60 percent of their historic ranges caused by pollution, dams, sedimentation and oil and gas development. “Mussels are monitors of the health of our waters. They are natural filters and serve as a food source for numerous species of wildlife. They are part of our American cultural history, and they aid in the preservation of biodiversity,” the agency said in its mucket fact sheet.
     The listing and accompanying critical habitat designation were prompted by a 2011 settlement agreement between Fish and Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity that resulted in a five-year workplan to finalize listings for hundreds of species across the country, according to the conservation group’s response to the habitat designation. “The Neosho mucket and rabbitsfoot mussels live on the bottom of streams and rivers and have suffered drastic declines because of water pollution and dams. Mussels reproduce by making a lure that looks like a young fish; when larger fish try to prey on the lure, the mussels release their fertilized eggs onto the fish’s gills. In dirty water the fish cannot see the mussel’s lure, so the mussel can’t reproduce,” the CBD said in their statement.
     When asked why the critical habitat designation took so long to finalize after the mussels were listed, Chris Davidson of the USFWS’ Arkansas Ecological Services Field Office said “the listing needed to be finalized by Sept. 30, 2013 to meet the requirements of the settlement, but there were three extensions of the comment period for the habitat designation, totaling 210 days. Two of the extensions were requested by [then] Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor to ensure his constituency had opportunity to review and comment on it.” He added, “It is not unusual for it to take a year or two.”
     Under the ESA, critical habitat is required to be designated when a species is listed as an endangered or threatened species, unless it is found to be “not determinable” or “not prudent.” A habitat designation might be judged to be “not prudent” if the designation itself could contribute to harm to the species, such as when publicly describing where the species is found could lead to increased poaching from collectors. The critical habitat designation process also includes environmental and economic assessments. Critical habitat was found to be determinable and prudent in the case of the mussels.
     According to the agency’s fact sheet explaining critical habitat, less importance is placed on habitat designation currently for various reasons. “After a Congressional moratorium on listing new species ended in 1996, we faced a huge backlog of species needing to be proposed for listing as threatened or endangered. For this reason, we have assigned a relatively low priority to designating critical habitat because we believe that a more effective use of our limited staff and funding has been to place imperiled species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species,” the agency said. In addition, the lack of understanding and “negative public sentiment” regarding critical habitat designation can do more harm than good, the agency added.
     According to the agency’s explanation, critical habitat designation does not affect land ownership or establish refuges or other conservation areas, and does not allow government access to private land. Activities that are federally funded, or require a permit or license from a federal agency, are required to consult with the USFWS if the activity is likely to adversely change critical habitat.
     “Freshwater mollusks are the most endangered group of animals on the planet. The southeastern United States has already lost more than 50 mollusk species to extinction, and 70 percent of the remaining species are at risk of disappearing without protection,” the CBD said.The critical habitat designation is effective June 1.

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