WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday finalized Endangered Species Act protections for two Appalachian crayfish threatened by coal mining in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The Big Sandy crayfish is listed as a threatened species, and the closely-related Guyandotte River crayfish is listed as endangered under the act, according to the action.
In the agency’s 2015 survey, Big Sandy crayfish were found in only 31 percent of the species’ historical sites and 38 percent of its historical stream systems in the Tug Fork, Levisa Fork, Upper Levisa Fork and Russell Fork watersheds. The Guyandotte River crayfish is found in only two stream systems, and in the 2015 survey were found in only 8 percent of historical stream systems and 12 percent of historical sites.
“The small, isolated populations of both species inhibit gene flow, making them even more vulnerable to extirpation [local extinction]. A single event like a contaminant spill could potentially eliminate an entire population,” the agency said. Because they don’t reproduce until 3 to 4 years of age, populations can take a long time to recover.
These crayfish, also known as crawfish or crawdads, are only 3 to 4 inches long. They are freshwater crustaceans that resemble lobsters, to which they are related, and they require clean, silt-free water to survive. “Excessive sediment on stream bottoms appears to be the primary threat to both crayfish species. Excess sediments fill in the holes and crevices under large boulders and prevent the crayfish from finding shelter from predators. This sedimentation typically results from soil erosion caused by activities such as fossil energy development, road construction and forestry operations,” according to the agency.
According to the agency, it is well documented that past and ongoing coal mining in the Appalachian Basin has degraded stream habitat and water quality. “The common physical changes to local waterways associated with coal mining include increased erosion and sedimentation, changes in flow, and in many cases the complete burial of headwater streams,” the action noted.
While both underground and surface mining affect surrounding streams, it is the advent of mountain-top removal mining since the 1970s that has resulted in the most destruction of habitat for the two crayfish species, due to the sheer amount of “overburden,” or rock and other geological material, that is placed into “valley fills” in the effort to expose coal seams, the agency said.
The Service proposed the crayfish for listing last year after the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned on behalf of the Big Sandy crayfish and other wetland species in the area in 2010, and then sued the agency when a listing determination was not concluded within the mandated timeframe. During the listing process, it was determined that what had previously been believed to be one species, was actually two closely-related species.
“Protecting these two crayfishes under the Endangered Species Act will not only ensure their survival but will also protect streams and water quality that are important for people,” Tierra Curry, a CBD senior scientist Kentucky native, said in the group’s response to the final listing.
The final listing is effective May 9.
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