Sheepnose, spectaclecase mussels to be listed as endangered

Monday, March 12, 2012 | 3:24 p.m. CDT

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two freshwater mussel species, once common in the eastern U.S. but now found in only a handful of rivers, are going on the federal Endangered Species List.

The sheepnose and spectaclecase mussels will be protected following an agreement reached last summer between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Biological Diversity. Under that legal settlement, Fish and Wildlife agreed to expedite listing decisions on 757 imperiled species by 2017.

The final rule on the mussels was released Monday.

"These mussels have funny names, but their situation is serious — and so are the water quality problems facing our country's rivers," said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist with the center. With the listing, both "have a real shot at survival and recovery."

The spectaclecase has been eliminated from 20 of the 44 streams where it historically lived. Those habitats include parts of the upper Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

The sheepnose has been eliminated from 25 of the 77 waterways where it historically lived. Its former habitat included thousands of miles of the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

Freshwater mussels, which eat by filtering small particles from the water, are considered key indicator species. Because they need clean water to survive, their health reflects the health of the waterway.

"By protecting these two species, we're protecting the quality of the water we drink, fish in and swim in," Curry said. "And the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to designate critical habitat for these mussels, because protecting their habitat will protect ours, too."

The final rule doesn't cite any particular waterways as "critical habitat" because the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the resources to fully study the biological and physical requirements that would justify that designation.

The sheepnose, once commercially harvested for jewelry and buttons, is oval and 5 inches long. It's now found in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The spectaclecase is about 7 inches long and is found now in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Both species are threatened by pollution, dams and mining, but Curry said protection through the Endangered Species List has a 99 percent success rate.

More than 50 mollusk species in the eastern U.S. have already become extinct.

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