Feds to Set Aside Habitat for Endangered Appalachia Crayfish

(CN) – It’s a big day for the little crayfish of Appalachia, as the federal government signaled Monday that it will propose protected habitat space for the endangered species due to coal mining operations and water pollution.

In total, 445 miles of waterways in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia could be set aside for the endangered crayfish species.

The threatened Big Sandy crayfish. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

About 84 square miles will be proposed as protected habitat for the Guyandotte River crayfish and 362 square miles will receive similar designation for the Big Sandy crayfish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its unpublished notice.

In April 2015, the crayfish species were designated endangered due to coal mining and road construction activities across the upper Big Sandy River watershed in Kentucky, Virginia and throughout the Guyandotte River basin affected by development and timber operations.

But the Trump administration weakened protections and allowed mining firms to draft plans within range of known crayfish streams. This led the Center for Biological Diversity to accuse the federal government of siding with the coal industry.

In a federal lawsuit filed in the Southern District of West Virginia, the environmental advocacy group argued the federal government took a page from West Virginia’s opinion on coal mining. The Center for Biological Diversity said Fish and Wildlife was pressured by “political appointees” from the U.S. Department of Interior to weaken protections.

The proposed habitat protections revealed Monday are broken into units across the region. Fish and Wildlife found that for example, the Guyandotte River crayfish is historically found in six connected stream systems within the upper basin but was only found in two isolated areas during the study.

“In our review, we determined that these two subunits do not provide sufficient redundancy or resiliency necessary for the conservation of the species,” the agency said in findings released on Monday.

This isolated population of the Guyandotte River crayfish could face extinction from this region due to unforeseen events.

Unoccupied areas will be proposed as critical habitat to ensure the conservation of the species, writes the agency.

Fish and Wildlife seek public comment on the proposed rule, which will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity called the proposed protections a “lifeline” for the crayfish populations that have endured coal mining operations in the region.

Perrin de Jong, attorney with the environmental advocacy group said, “Coal mines are bad for the health of every living being around them. These rare crayfish could be wiped out by the mines, which also threaten people living nearby by polluting their air and drinking water.”

The Interior Department did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.

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