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Coal Mining Endangers Appalachian Crayfish

WASHINGTON (CN) - Two Appalachian crayfish species have been proposed for endangered status under the Endangered Species Act due to coal mining and road construction. Crayfish habitat depends upon stream water quality, and excess sedimentation and pollution from coal mining, road construction and dredging has contributed to the drastic decline in the populations of these two species, according to today's 12-month finding.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the Big Sandy crayfish as a candidate species in 1991, and it remained a candidate species until 1996, when the agency discontinued the candidate species designations. Fish and Wildlife was petitioned in 2010 by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and its regional allies on behalf of the crayfish and other aquatic and wetland species in the southeastern United States. Because the USFWS did not complete its crayfish determination within the statutory timeframe, the CBD sued the agency. A settlement stipulated the USFWS would deliver a 12-month finding to be published by April 1, 2015.

Since that settlement agreement, Fish and Wildlife determined that what was previously classified as the Big Sandy crayfish species was actually comprised of two separate, but closely related, species. The USFWS consequently published today's finding for both the Big Sandy crayfish and the Guyandotte River crayfish.

Widespread historical timber and mining activities, increased development, sewage discharges and road construction throughout the Big Sandy and the Upper Guyandotte river basins damaged the aquatic systems and locally wiped out both crayfish species from many subwatersheds within their respective historical ranges, according to the action. The Guyandotte crayfish is currently found in just one population on a creek in West Virginia. The Big Sandy crayfish is found in four isolated populations across the upper Big Sandy River watershed in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, according to the agency's announcement.

"This listing proposal is historic because these are the first species to be proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act because of harm caused by mountaintop-removal coal mining," Tierra Curry, a CBD senior scientist was quoted as saying in the group's response to the proposal. "For decades coal companies have gotten away with polluting Appalachia's water and killing its species, but it is time for the Endangered Species Act to start being enforced in Appalachia."

The CBD also noted that this mechanized mining method employs fewer people than other forms of mining, and its pollution affects humans as well as the ecosystem.

"Coal field residents and allies are currently promoting the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or ACHE, a federal bill that would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until the federal government has completed and evaluated studies into health disparities in the region," the group said.

The crayfish shelter under loose large boulders in clear streams and rivers, and are important in their role of animal and plant matter recyclers, and as food for other wildlife, the USFWS said.

"The story of these declining crayfishes is emblematic of the conservation challenges and opportunities confronting one of our nation's most biologically diverse regions," Wendi Weber, Fish and Wildlife's Northeast Regional Director, was quoted as saying in the agency's announcement. "As we continue through the public process, we are committed to working collaboratively with agencies, industry, and conservation and recreation organizations to conserve these two native species."Comments on the proposal are due June 8, and written public meeting requests are due May 22. A proposed critical habitat determination is to be published in the near future, the agency said.

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