(CN) – The Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government on Monday for not designating critical habitat for four species of endangered mussels in violated of the Endangered Species Act.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., the center says the Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have unnecessarily delayed and put the snuffbox, rayed bean, sheepnose and spectaclecase mussels at risk.
In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service classified the mussels as “endangered” due to habitat loss. Per the Endangered Species Act, once a species is listed as endangered, the agency must designate “critical habitat” for them within a year. However, FWS maintained the mussel’s critical habitat was “undeterminable,” despite the agency’s knowledge of the mussels’ range throughout the Midwest, Northeast and South, the complaint states.
By designating habitat as critical, projects permitted or funded by the federal government would have to show the species’ habitat would not be adversely affected.
North America has more species of mussels than anywhere in the world. But mussels are also the most endangered animal on the continent, according to the Nature Conservancy. More than 70 percent of species are at risk.
Like other mollusks, mussels filter water through their bodies to collect organic matter. Scientists say these creatures help improve water quality, but are also sensitive to water pollution. Several other animals depend on mussels for food, including otters, herons and egrets.
“Freshwater mussels need healthy rivers and streams to survive, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to protect these waterways,” said Rachael Curran, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Safeguarding the places where mussels live ensures clean water for the rest of us.”
The designation of critical habitats has become a controversial issue in recent years.
Eighteen states filed a lawsuit against FWS and other government agencies in 2016 over new rules that would protect habitat not currently occupied by the endangered species. The states dropped the lawsuit earlier this year after negotiating a settlement with the Trump administration, who promised to revisit the rules.
The states’ lawsuit came after an appellate court upheld the critical designation of private land over the endangered dusky gopher frog. The Supreme Court will hear the dusky gopher frog case this fall.
The Interior Department directed questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment. A representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said they could not comment on pending litigation.