WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed yet another southeast freshwater mussel for protection under the Endangered Species Act due to habitat loss and degradation. If the rule is finalized, the yellow lance will join other southeast mussels, including the Suwanne, fluted kidneyshell, slabside pearly and at least eight others on the ESA’s list of endangered and threatened species.
The action was prompted by a 2015 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group against the agency for not timely responding to its 2010 petition. The suit resulted in a settlement agreement mandating a listing proposal by March 31, 2017. “More species of freshwater mussels are found in the southeastern United States than anywhere else in the world, but 75 percent of the region’s freshwater mussels are now imperiled. Thirty-six species have already been lost to extinction,” the CBD said in its response to the listing proposal.
“Although most people have never even heard of them, freshwater mussels are the most endangered animals in North America. So it’s great news that this one, the yellow lance, has been proposed for the Endangered Species Act protection that can ensure its survival,” CBD’s senior scientist Tierra Curry said.
Freshwater mussels are vital to the health of their stream ecosystems, not just as food for other animals, but for their ability to clean the water and decrease downstream transport of nitrogen, according to the agency. Though they filter and purify water, they also require clear water for their complicated reproductive cycle. When ready to mate, the mussels extrude fleshy lures for specific host fish. As the fish approach, the mussels release fertilized eggs into the fish’s gills. Eventually the juvenile mussels drop off the fish to continue developing on their own. In dirty water, the fish cannot see the lures and the mussels then cannot reproduce.
The yellow lance is threatened by a loss of nearly 60 percent of its stream habitat due to development and dams, and, in what is left of its historic range, the stream water is polluted by agricultural runoff, sewage treatment plants and solid waste disposal sites. Just as damming reduces suitable habitat by reducing water flow, development and paving causes the opposite problem, of water that washes too swiftly into streams instead of soaking into the ground and then slowly seeping into the streams. This rushing flow scourers the streambeds, rapidly changes water temperatures and breaks up habitat. In addition, all of the threats to the survival of the yellow lance are worsened by the effects of climate change, according to the agency.
The service has evaluated yellow lance populations within its historic range of eight river basins across Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina: the Patuxent, Potomac, Rappahannock, York, James, Chowan, Tar, and Neuse. The mussels are “presumed extirpated,” or locally extinct, in the entire Potomac basin, as are two “management units” (smaller units of one or more watersheds within a basin) in the Chowan and Lower Tar basins. Only two management units are rated as “high” and one unit is rated as “moderate” in the Tar basin, with all the other basin or management units rated as “low” or “very low.”
In February, the new administration repealed the Stream Protection Rule, and has indicated that the Waters of the United States Rule and the Clean Water Act are also on the chopping block. The future of the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces water regulations, and the Endangered Species Act itself are also uncertain under this pro-business/anti-regulation administration, which brings the fate of this proposed rule and of the mussel it aims to protect into question as well.
“Mussels are indicators of water quality. Protecting their habitat directly benefits people as well as other wildlife that rely on clean rivers,” CBD’s Curry said.
Comments on the proposal to list the yellow lance as a threatened species under the ESA are due by June 5, and requests for public hearings on this proposal are due in writing by May 22. The agency plans to propose critical habitat for the yellow lance in the near future.