Appalachian LCC News

Conservation and Inspiration in the Tennessee River Basin

Conservation and Inspiration in the Tennessee River Basin

This summer, conservationists, biologists, environmental leaders and other partners from across the Appalachian region gathered in Chattanooga, Tennessee inspired by a single goal: conserving the Tennessee River and its rich aquatic biodiversity.

Hosted by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the third annual Tennessee River Basin (TRB) Network meeting not only brought partners together; it underscored the fragile nature of this biologically rich landscape.

The Tennessee River watershed holds more than 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels -- more species of both groups than any other U.S. watershed. But with 57 of the fish species considered at risk, at least 15 on the federal endangered or threatened list, and more than 47 mussel species also at risk, the network has a lot of work ahead.

“While we have the most biodiverse watershed in the nation, we also have the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America,” said Shannon O’Quinn, TVA aquatic biologist and event organizer. “This is one reason why this network partnership is needed now more than ever before.”

The TRB Network is a joint effort organized by TVA, with strong support by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Appalachian Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and The Nature Conservancy. Partnership groups include federal agencies and tribal nations, state Agencies and regional partnerships, and non-governmental organizations and local community groups.

Gillian Bee, a landscape conservation fellow with the Appalachian LCC who helped facilitate the meeting with O’Quinn, said the August meeting marked a critical jumping off point for the partnership.

“I think the Network is ready to realize its collaborative potential,” Bee said. “We’ve come a long way in the past three years and there has been some amazing work by these organizations and individuals to protect and conserve lands and waters within the Tennessee River Basin. The August meeting provided a solid foundation to take some important next steps.”

During the past three years, the Network has identified and focused on several shared goals and priorities, namely conserving and restoring aquatic resources (particularly areas of high biological diversity); improving the quality of water resources; increasing stewardship through communication, education, awareness and engagement; and improving data access and sharing.

Pandy English, chief for the Biodiversity Division of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says it is amazing to see the “many approaches that different members have on the same issues. Participation in the TRB Network provides inspiration and new ways of seeing old problems that one day may be solved with creative collaboration from diverse viewpoints.”

Bee said Appalachian LCC staff have helped facilitate development of the Network by hosting quarterly webinars to sharing information, planning meetings, supporting individual work groups and providing a web-based platform to share news and resources and coordinate conservation efforts.

To aid on-the-ground conservation and coordination efforts, Bee and others also have developed a visual tool called the Conservation Action Map. More than just a repository for information about scattered conservation actions, the Conservation Action Map provides a strong basis for community organizing to align conservation efforts to support work on priorities that are often beyond the scope and scale that is achievable by any individual partner.

This concept is of keen interest to Kendra Briechle of The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Leadership Network. Briechle’s organizing role has taken on a degree of urgency at this critical point in the development and evolution of the TRB Network. The Conservation Fund facilitated the August meeting, helping the participants bridge mutual interests and promote the connections between science and management of the river and communications and outreach to residents, businesses and visitors.

“The Network participants are committed to collaborating across disciplines for the health of the Tennessee River Basin and all who rely on it,” Briechle said. She said next steps for the partnership include refining its mission and purpose, improving communications, and leveraging relationships.

While tools like the Conservation Action Map and further organizing to solidify priorities and roles help move the TRB Network forward, FWS Chesapeake Bay Coordinator Mike

Slattery says lessons learned from other large-landscape conservation partnerships in the country provide some insight from the past. Slattery, who provided the keynote address at the Chattanooga meeting. said the TRB Network exemplifies many of the qualities of the Chesapeake Bay Program, established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to address pollution and environmental degradation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Today the program is a world-renowned example of collective effort to restore large, complex ecological systems.

After running through iconic photos of the Chesapeake’s various landscapes, ecosystems and wildlife species, Slattery urged the TRB Network partnership to see beyond simply “designating reserves and cleaning up pollution” to viewing the landscape as a whole more than just the sum of its parts -- a mosaic of natural places, working lands, and urban environments all supporting the needs of nature and people.

“This requires us to usher in a fundamentally new way of thinking about the practice of conservation, beginning with our our agencies, organizations and communities of practice,” Slattery said. “We need to develop new and different ways of making the connections between landscapes, resources, values and people.”

Successful landscape partnerships have a few elements in common, he said, adding that “a unity of purpose is at the heart of each of them.” These elements include:

● Put relationships first

● Develop a single, shared story line

● Collaborate to design the partnership framework and operating systems by which things will get done

● Pool funding resources to grow the pot for all

● Decide who does what best, and tackle tasks together, by relying on complementary strengths.

“Inspiration is important,” Slattery concluded. “Sustaining the level of inspiration you may feel in the early stages of a network like yours is critical to healthy partner relations, and because relationship - connectedness - is really the secret to all effective partnerships.”

For more information, visit the Tennessee River Basin Network website at http://applcc.org/projects/trb

-FWS-

New Handouts Summarize Tree Species Responses to Climate Change

Ecosystems will be increasingly affected by a changing climate, and understanding the potential impacts is an important first step to sustaining healthy forests in the face of changing conditions. We develop vulnerability assessments in each of our project areas in order to provide high-quality information about future changes in climate and the potential effects on the forest ecosystems specific to that particular region. This information helps to identify the characteristics that put forest communities at greatest risk and can be used to inform natural resource management.

 

Several vulnerability assessments have been developed through the Climate Change Response Framework. Although each vulnerability assessment is tailored to meet the needs identified within each region, they are designed to share similarities in general format and content. Our vulnerability assessments:

  • Focus on forest ecosystems within a defined region
  • Address vulnerabilities of individual tree species and forest or natural community types within the region
  • Provide gridded historical and modeled climate change information
  • Employ at least two different forest impact models to project changes for tree species
  • Use panels of scientists and managers with local expertise to put scientific results in context

 

To find Ecoregional Assessments for:

  • Central Hardwoods
  • Northern Minnesota
  • Northern Lower Michigan/Easter Upper Michigan
  • Northern Wisconsin
  • Central Appalachians
  • Urban: Chicago Wilderness
  • New England
  • Mid-Atlantic

 

https://forestadpatation.org/vulnerability-assessment

Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change Project Now Underway

Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change (ASCC) is a collaborative effort to establish a series of experimental silvicultural trials across a network of different ecosystem types throughout the United States. Scientists, land managers, and partners are developing trial sites as part of a multi-region study researching long-term ecosystem responses to range of climate change adaptation actions.

 

The primary objectives of ASCC are to:

  • Create a multi-region study with local-suited climate change adaptation treatments using input from an expert panel of regional scientist and local managers
  • Introduce natural resource managers to concepts, approaches, and tools that help integrate climate change considerations into resource management and silvicultural decision making.

 

Study Design

Each trial serves as part of this multiregion study focused on understanding and evaluating management options designed to enable forests to respond to a changing climate. Site-specific treatments are developed according to local conditions and tailored to meet site management objectives, while aligned under a common framework for answering important questions about the response of these forest types to climate change. In using this two-tiered design, ASCC provides tangible means of evaluating adaptive management strategies across distinct forest types, allowing researchers to ask broad questions about climate change adaptation across all study sites, while addressing on-the-ground management application specific to individual sites. Adaptive planning processes guide treatment design and implementation, under three foundational climate change adaptation options, with a "no action" control.

 

To kick off each ASCC site, a multiday workshop is held to familiarize local managers and scientists with adaption approaches and tactics for forest management. During the workshop, an expert panel of scientist and local managers also develops the specific treatments for the experiment, which includes designing resistance, resilience and transition objectives along a spectrum or gradient of climate change accommodation.

 

The framework of the ASCC project provides a straightforward system and a robust, replicate and long-term study design for testing climate change adaptation strategies in forest management. It also equips managers across the country with a practical approach to incorporating a suite of adaptation actions into silvicultral planning. Each ASCC treatment unit is of is of operational scale and represents significant harvest areas at each site, adding to the value and sustainability of the research. It also fosters collaboration through the long-term partnerships between researchers and managers at both the local and national levels. In this way, the ASCC project is responding to the need for operational, tangible examples of adaptive management that can foster resilience to climate change impacts and enable ecosystems to adapt under uncertain futures.

 

Read benefits and impacts of the ASCC project as well as the progress and next steps... https://forestadaptation.org/ascc

American Fisheries Society Newsletter

Policy News

AFS Proud to Support Dedicated Funding to Recover America's Fish and Wildlife

 

AFS Objects to EPA's Withdrawal of Pebble Mine Determination

 

AFS Supports Bipartisan Bill to Further Citizen Science in National Wildlife Refuges

 

Publications

Dam, That's a Wicked Problem

 

Restorative Forest Impacts on Fish Habitat

 

Announcements

Students and Early Career Professionals- AFS wants to hear from you!

 

Survey on climate change topics of concern for AFS-TWS members

 

148th Annual Meeting: Call for Papers

 

For full stories and more: https://fisheries.org/newsletter/

Webinar: Effects of Climate Change on Inland Fish and Fisheries: Global, North American, and Management Perspectives

Hosted by AFWA’s Climate Change Committee and Fisheries and Water Resources Policy Committee

Wednesday,August 30,2017 1:00-2:00pm EST

Join us for a webinar featuring research from the USGS’s National Climate Change and Wildlife ScienceCenter. The presentation will cover documented and projected effects of climate change on inland fishes and proposed opportunities for adaptation. The speakers will draw from two important publications including“Global synthesis of the documented and projected effects of climate change on inland fishes” and “Climate change effects on North American inland fish populations and assemblages”.

Speakers

Abigail J. Lynch, USGS, National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center

Bonnie J. E. Myers, USGS, National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center

 

How to Join

Click here to join the meeting: https://cc.callinfo.com/r/1rj4v71g7w74m&eom

Dial-In Number: 800.768.2983, enter Access Code: 8383462

Contact Davia Palmeri (dpalmeri@fishwildlife.org or 202-838-3464) with questions.

Recovery: Farm Bill Provides Hope for the Cerulean Warbler

Make sure to check out the original article!

The cerulean warbler, named for the sky-blue upper feathering of the adult male, is in desperate trouble, especially in its core breeding area — the coal-field region of Appalachia. In 2000 the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a petition, cosigned by 27 other organizations, to list the species as threatened and designate critical habitat. But, strapped for money and human resources, the Service took no action. Finally, in 2006, it announced that listing was not warranted.

But with funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) available from the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture (a partnership of state and federal agencies and NGOs including The Nature Conservancy) is helping private land owners restore cerulean habitat. Work on existing forests in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia is only in its second year, but already results are encouraging.

In Kentucky and Ohio restoring supposedly “reclaimed” surface coal mine sites to cerulean habitat is a far slower process because the forests have to be started from scratch. The kind of reclamation mandated by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) wasn’t about wildlife; it was about preventing landslides and erosion. So sites were compacted by bulldozer and seeded with aggressive, often alien grasses, legumes, shrubs and trees including lespedeza and autumn olive. Instead of creating forests these plantings precluded them.

SouthWings, a group of volunteer pilots who show journalists the tracks of industry as they exist on the landscape rather than on a glossy promo, has twice flown me over former cerulean warbler habitat in West Virginia. As far as I could see on all compass points the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau had been razed and with them the planet’s most diverse and productive temperate forest. The largest non-nuclear explosions ever detonated were converting mountains to stumps. And between the stumps, now cluttered with draglines, bulldozers, trucks and giant drills, toxic coal slurry festered in leaky “holding ponds.” It wasn’t “mountaintop removal”; it was mountain-range removal.

At least some of the “reclaimed” sites have reverted to the original landowners after issuing of SMCRA-required bonds posted by the mining permittees. So the Joint Venture can work with these landowners to do genuine reclamation for ceruleans and a host of other species that require similar habitat.

So expensive is this work that few landowners can afford their 25-percent cost share. Fortunately, however, NRCS (which usually provides 75 percent under the Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program) allows the landowners’ share to be covered by partner contributions such as donation of potentially blight-resistant American chestnut trees by the American Chestnut Foundation. And NRCS helps implement genuine mine-site reclamation by providing financial assistance to the Foundation and Green Forests Work.

Employed by both organizations is a forester named Michael French. He offers this: “To establish native hardwoods we have to control the competing vegetation either through targeted herbicide use or by bulldozing it and the seedbed out of the way. These invasives are tolerant of compacted conditions, so we plow up the ground with a large bulldozer that has three-foot ripping shanks on it. It’s like tilling your garden. This way rain can infiltrate the soil and be more slowly released, and roots can grow out in all directions.”

I asked French if Green Forests Work gets criticized for using herbicides. “Sometimes,” he replied. “Our response is this: ‘Well, show us another way.’ There is no other way except to push everything down to bare earth, and we do that when we can. But sometimes herbicides are the only tool we have.”

This work is important not just for ceruleans but to get American chestnuts back on the landscape after close to a century’s absence. The loss of these important mast-producers throughout their range (a wide swath from upper New England south to Alabama and Mississippi) was devastating to hundreds of wildlife species. The trees being planted are the Foundation’s most advanced generation of potentially blight-resistant chestnuts — 15/16th American and 1/16th Chinese. “We’re hoping they’ll have the growth characteristics of American chestnuts and retain the blight resistance of Chinese chestnuts,” says French.

By contrast, results of cerulean habitat work in the forests of Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia seem instantaneous. For example, last winter a 60-acre tract in central West Virginia was partially opened with a shelterwood cut (prescribed for ceruleans). In spring it was occupied by six males.

Dr. Petra Wood, a USGS research wildlife biologist who teaches at West Virginia University, has been studying ceruleans for 20 years. She and her graduate students have established most of the forest-management prescriptions for the bird’s recovery. You open a closed canopy, thinning poorly formed trees that have little value for wildlife or timber and leaving the hickories, sugar maples, cucumber magnolias, black cherries and, especially, white, swamp and chestnut oaks. Fortunately, this is also a prescription for good silviculture.

“Caterpillars favored by ceruleans tend to be more prevalent in the white-oak family,” says Wood. “And white oaks tend to have more open canopy structure. That gives the birds far easier access to nest high in the canopy. We understand that forest managers and landowners are trying to make money. White oaks and hickories are often high value, but if you really want to help the cerulean, try to leave as many of those as you can. One of the things we’re looking at is how much of the canopy you can remove and still have good habitat for cerulean warblers. These birds like canopy gaps, but a lot of our forests have closed, even canopies. We see higher abundance of ceruleans and an increase in nesting output where timber has been harvested.”

A big factor in cerulean decline is thought to be loss of winter habitat in the wooded high country of northern South America. There’s an international effort to preserve these tracts and a concurrent effort to encourage shade-grown coffee production over the standard method that requires forest removal. “Some people think this is where we should be doing all the work,” Wood says. “But because cerulean warblers breed in our eastern hardwood forests that’s the only place you can produce more of them. So we need to do what we can in the short term for the breeding habitat.”

Is the high market value of white oaks and hickories discouraging landowners from leaving them for ceruleans? I put the question to Michael Eckley, The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands forestry manager in Pennsylvania. “No; I don’t think so,” he said. “These trees have tremendous benefits for wildlife; and landowners traditionally are interested in big game. It’s an easy sell if you talk about [such mast eaters as] bear, deer and turkey. Then you transition your narrative and explain the value of warblers and other species. The Conservancy’s niche is building relationships with landowners, helping them understand that good forest management can contribute to traditional values and spinoff benefits for species of conservation concern, maybe species these landowners are not aware of.”

The Conservancy’s Working Woodlands Program, which protects private forests with conservation easements while still allowing sustainable timber harvest, doesn’t specifically target ceruleans. But by promoting forest diversity and health, protecting hard-mast producing trees and encouraging desirable understory vegetation, the program helps foster forest conditions ceruleans require. “The Nature Conservancy has worked with landowners who enrolled in Working Woodlands to continue active management that would make the forest healthier and that lines up well with our cerulean forest management guidelines,” says Todd Fearer of the American Bird Conservancy.

Fearer, who serves as the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture coordinator, was hoping for 2,000 easement acres for ceruleans from the Conservancy’s Working Woodlands Program. Instead he got 8,200.

To a large extent the fate of the cerulean warbler is tied to the 2018 Farm Bill. “Keeping the conservation titles in there is critical,” says Fearer. “The current Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is how we’ve been able to accomplish almost all the private lands work. Its beauty is that it focuses on the public-private partnerships and encourages the partners to work with NRCS.”

“RCPP has empowered communities and driven public-private partnerships to find local solutions to difficult natural-resource challenges,” adds Jenny Conner Nelms, The Nature Conservancy’s Senior Policy Advisor for Agriculture. “The program has mobilized over 2,000 conservation partners who have committed $1.4 billion to on-the-ground projects, almost doubling the amount of federal funding.”

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has zeroed out RCPP in its proposed budget. If Congress goes along with that recommendation, the prospects for the cerulean warbler will turn from sky blue to coal black.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region Updates Federal Endangered Species Act

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 5 Endangered Species Act Update

July 13, 2017

 

Recovery Planning and Implementation

  1. White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) (All States) – As of July 10, 2017, WNS has been confirmed in 31 states and 5 Canadian provinces. The causative fungus has also been detected in two additional states (MS and TX).
  • WNS Workshop: In late May the Service co-hosted the 2017 White-Nose Syndrome Workshop in Nashville, TN, along with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, The Nature Conservancy, and Bat Conservation International. Approximately 140 attended, with 20+ viewing the plenary webcast. The workshop has been held annually for Federal, state, provincial, and tribal personnel, researchers, and stakeholders to advance the efforts of the collaborative national effort to combat WNS. A 1-day meeting of the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) core team preceded the workshop on May 22. Transactions from the meeting will be made available on the WNS website.
  • WNS Grants:
    • State Capacity Grants: The Service will soon announce the 2017 awards to state agencies in support of WNS-related activities. Over $1 million will be awarded to 37 states and the District of Columbia. The grants bring the total funding to states for WNS response over the last 8 years to $7 million.
    • USFWS 2017 WNS Research Grants: The Service received 46 proposals in response to our open call, with a total request over $7.3 million. The Service research grants program complements the other WNS funding opportunities described here to address the needs and actions of the WNS National Plan. The Service plans to provide over $1 million in support for the research grants. Recipients will be notified in August.
    • Bats for the Future Fund: The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), in partnership with the Service and U.S. Forest Service, established the Bats for the Future Fund (BFF) to support the development and implementation of tools to improve survival of bats affected by WNS. NFWF received 27 proposals in response to the BFF RFP, with a total request over $5.2 million. NFWF anticipates providing approximately $1 million in grant funding and plans to announce grant recipients in September.
    • WNS Small Grants: The Service plans to work with Wildlife Management Institute again in 2017 to offer $250K in small grants (up to $30K). That program is anticipated to open in September, 2017.
  • Treatment Field Trials: Several field trials of potential treatments were conducted this winter in Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Other scientists are looking for new biocontrol agents in Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, and British Columbia. Results for several of these efforts were shared at the workshop in Nashville, and plans are in place for additional trials next winter.
  • Monthly Conference Calls: The Service continues to host two monthly WNS conference calls, held on the first and third Thursdays of each month, to discuss WNS-related topics with state, Federal, tribal, and nongovernmental partners in the United States and Canada. Please contact Jeremy Coleman, National WNS Coordinator (jeremy_coleman@fws.gov), with requests to be added to the email list.

More information on the national response to WNS can be found here: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/.

For more information, contact Jeremy Coleman, jeremy_coleman@fws.gov, or Jonathan Reichard, jonathan_reichard@fws.gov, at the Regional Office.

2. Atlantic Salmon Recovery Plan (ME) – On May 31, 2016, the public comment for the Draft Recovery Plan for the expanded Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment of Atlantic Salmon closed. The Service and National Marine Fisheries Service share jurisdiction of the species and jointly prepared the draft plan, which includes recovery objectives that, when met, would allow us to consider reclassifying the DPS from endangered to threatened and, ultimately, to delist the DPS. We received 12 highly substantive comments on the draft plan. The draft plan is now undergoing independent peer review. All comments will be considered during preparation of the final recovery plan. Completion of the final plan is expected this year.

The draft plan can be found at

http://atlanticsalmonrestoration.org/resources/documents/atlantic-salmon-recovery-plan- 2015

For more information, contact Mary Parkin of our Regional Office at mary_parkin@fws.gov.

3. Canada Lynx Status Assessment and Recovery Plan (ME, NH, VT) – On June 14, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ordered the Service to complete a recovery plan for the U.S. Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Canada lynx by January 15, 2018, unless the Service finds that such a plan will not promote the conservation of the lynx. The Service is nearing completion of a species status assessment (SSA) for the DPS, after which we will issue a 5-year review recommendation based upon results of the assessment. We expect to finalize the 5-year review in 2017. If it is determined that the DPS should remain listed, we will immediately initiate recovery planning, again using the SSA framework as a foundation for proposing recovery criteria and recommended actions.

Detailed information about the Canada lynx can be found at

http://bit.ly/CanadaLynxUSFWS

For additional information, contact Mark McCollough in our Maine Field Office at mark_mccollough@fws.gov.

 

Section 10 Incidental Take Permits - Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) 1)

  1. Pennsylvania Forestry HCP (PA) – The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) are developing an HCP for Indiana and northern long-eared bats to support a section 10 permit application for forest management-related activities on 1.4 million acres of PGC State Game Lands, 2.2 million acres of DCNR State Forests, and 295,000 acres of DCNR State Parks. The PGC and DCNR were awarded a section 6 grant to fund continued work on the HCP. The Service is developing an environmental impact statement for the project and anticipates making a permit issuance decision in 2018. For more information, contact Pamela Shellenberger in our Pennsylvania Field Office at pamela_shellenberger@fws.gov.
  2. Duke Energy North Alleghany Wind HCP (PA) -- The Service has received an incidental take permit application from North Allegheny Wind, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Duke Energy Renewables, Inc., who owns and operates the North Allegheny Wind Facility, for take of Indiana bats resulting from operation of its 35-turbine wind facility. The Service is developing an environmental assessment for the project and anticipates making a permit issuance decision in 2017. For more information, contact Melinda Turner in our Pennsylvania Field Office at melinda_turner@fws.gov.
  3. Oil and Gas Coalition Multi-State HCP (OH, PA, WV) – A coalition of 10 oil and gas companies is developing an HCP to cover midstream and upstream oil and gas exploration, production, and maintenance activities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia over a 50- year period. The Coalition has indicated that it intends to request ITP coverage for five bat species: the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the threatened northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), the eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), and the tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus). The Service held five scoping meetings and one webinar in December 2016 to seek public input regarding development of the draft EIS. For more information, contact Pamela Shellenberger in our Pennsylvania Field Office at pamela_shellenberger@fws.gov.

Classification – Candidate Assessment, Petition Finding, Listing, Delisting, Reclassification, Critical Habitat Designation

  1. National Listing Workplan (All States) – On September 1, 2016, the Service announced a 7-year (fiscal year (FY) 2017 to 2023) plan to address our ESA listing workload. The Workplan is based on the July 2016 final ESA Status Review Prioritization Methodology (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-07-27/pdf/2016-17818.pdf). The Prioritization Methodology and resulting Workplan allow us to address our current status review backlog in an efficient, predictable, and transparent manner. Under this approach, each status review is assigned to one of five priority categories, according to the imminence of threats, availability of relevant information, and ongoing conservation efforts by states and other stakeholders.

The national Workplan is posted at https://www.fws.gov/endangered/improving_ESA/index.html There are three documents:

  • a FY 2017 plan that shows ongoing carryover actions from FY16 as well as new actions; this is a more complete picture of the Service’s listing work and helps explain why, due to workload capacity and conservation priority, there are actions scheduled for other years;
  • a FY17to FY 2023 plan that shows only new actions scheduled according to workload capacity and conservation priority; and
  • a list of currently unscheduled actions, mostly for species that lack data.

The Workplan identifies each action’s completion date; work on the action will begin a at least a year or two before this date, depending on the species’ range, other biological complexities, and staffing consideration. If you have information or questions about the species that occur in your areas, we ask that you coordinate with the Field Office Supervisor in the appropriate state. For some of these species, the Service’s lead field office is one located in another Service Region. As of FY 2017, the national Workplan addresses status reviews for 112 species occurring in Region 5 (69 R5 lead; 43 non-R5 lead). For more information, contact Krishna Gifford in our Regional Office at krishna_gifford@fws.gov.

2. Yellow lance and Atlantic pigtoe mussels (MD, VA, NC, SC, GA) – On September 22, 2014 (Atlantic pigtoe), and September 9, 2015 (yellow lance), the Service and the CBD filed stipulated settlements in the District of Columbia, agreeing that the Service would submit to the Federal Register a 12-month finding for the yellow lance no later than March 31, 2017, and for the Atlantic pigtoe no later than April 1, 2018. On April 5, 2017, the Service published in the Federal Register a proposed rule to designate the yellow lance as a threatened species. The public comment period closes on June 4, 2017. A publication date for the 12-month finding for the Atlantic pigtoe has not yet been determined.

The yellow lance proposed rule can be accessed here: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR- 2017-04-05/pdf/2017-06783.pdf.

For more information, contact Sarah McRae in our Raleigh North Carolina Field Office at sarah_mcrae@fws.gov.

3. Tricolored Bat Petition (All States) – On June 14, 2016, the Service received a petition from the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Wildlife Diversity to list the tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) as an endangered or threatened species. We are required to make a substantial or not substantial finding on whether the petitioned information indicates that the petitioned action may be warranted. If we find that the petition is substantial, we will initiate a status review for the species which would be based on evaluating all of the best available information. A 90-day petition finding for the species should be published by the summer of 2017. For more information, contact Krishna Gifford in our Regional Office at krishna_gifford@fws.gov.

4. Kenk’s amphipod Final Listing Determination/Proposed Critical Habitat Designation (DC, MD, VA) – On September 30, 2016, the Service published a proposed rule to list the Kenk’s amphipod (Stygobromus kenki) as an endangered species and made a determination that critical habitat was prudent but not determinable. The comment period on the proposed rule closed on November 29, 2016. Submitted comments, including peer reviewer comments can be viewed through www.regulations.gov under docket #FWS-R5-ES-2016-0030.

 

The Kenk’s amphipod is a small (maximum length 5.5 mm), eyeless, unpigmented crustacean inhabiting shallow ground water and associated springs and seeps. Historically, it has been found in a total of six seepage springs in Montgomery County, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Its habitat consists of hillside seepage springs in wooded areas within the watersheds of Rock Creek and the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River. More recently, the species was also located in four seepage springs on Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County, Virginia. The primary threats to the species’ viability are poor water quality, habitat degradation, and the effects of small population dynamics.

 

A final determination on the proposed rule to list the Kenk’s amphipod as an endangered species must be made no later than September 30, 2017, to comply with statutory deadlines. The final determination may be one of three options: finalize as an endangered species, finalize as a threatened species, or withdraw the proposed listing rule. If the listing the species as an endangered or threatened species remains warranted, the Service will also publish a proposed critical habitat designation rule. For more information, contact Julie (Thompson) Slacum in our Chesapeake Bay Field Office at julie_thompson@fws.gov.

5. Bicknell’s Thrush 12-Month Finding (R5 Current Breeding Range States: ME, VT, NH, NY; R5 Current Migration Range States: CT, DE, MA, MD, NJ, PA, RI, VA, WV) – In September 2013, the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia approved a settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Service on CBD’s complaint that the Service failed to complete the 12-month finding on CBD’s petition to list the Bicknell’s thrush and seven other species within the statutory timeframe. The settlement agreement specifies that the Service will send the 12-month finding to the Federal Register by September 30, 2017. The potential outcomes of the 12-month finding are that the species does not warrant listing or that that it does warrant listing as a threatened or endangered species; a warranted finding would be combined with a proposed listing rule and a proposed rule to designate critical habitat, if prudent and determinable.

 

The Service notified interested parties in March and April 2016 that we were seeking new information on the species. The Service prepared a biological species report that will support the subsequent 12-month finding. The report was sent out for peer review and partner review to the State Department of Natural Resources agencies within the species’ breeding range in May 2017; migration range States were not contacted to review the report because we had received no information about the species within the migration range during our request for information—the best available information indicates that the species does not stay in any one area and is a habitat generalist during migration. For more information, contact Krishna Gifford in our Regional Office at krishna_gifford@fws.gov.

6. Candy darter (VA, WV) – In July 2015, the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia approved a settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Service on CBD’s complaint that the Service failed to complete the 12-month finding on CBD’s petition to list the candy darter within the statutory timeframe. The settlement agreement specifies that the Service will send the 12-month finding to the Federal Register by September 30, 2017. The potential outcomes of the 12-month finding are that the species does not warrant listing or that that it does warrant listing as a threatened or endangered species; a warranted finding would be combined with a proposed listing rule and a proposed rule to designate critical habitat, if prudent and determinable.

 

The Service notified interested parties in August and September 2016 that we were seeking new information on the species. The Service prepared a species status assessment (SSA) report that will support the subsequent 12-month finding. The report was sent out for peer review and partner review to the State Department of Natural Resources agencies within the species’ range. For more information, contact Keith Hastie in our Regional Office at keith_hastie@fws.gov.

7. Eastern Cougar Proposed Delisting Rule (All States) – On June 17, 2015, the Service published in the Federal Register a proposed rule to delist the eastern cougar. The proposal is based on the 5-year review issued on March 2, 2011, which concluded that the eastern cougar is extinct and recommended the subspecies be delisted. The public comment period closed on August 17, 2015. On June 28, 2016, the comment period was reopened for 30- days to obtain comments from peer reviewers. We expect to publish a final determination on the proposal in 2017.

 

Documents pertaining to this rulemaking can be found at the following links:

Proposed rule: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-06-17/pdf/2015-14931.pdf Reopening notice: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-06-28/pdf/2016-15227.pdf

 

For more information, contact Mark McCollough in our Maine Field Office at mark_mccollough@fws.gov.

8. American Burying Beetle (AR, KS, OK, MA, NE, OH, RI, SD, TX) – On March 16, 2016, the Service published a Federal Register notice announcing a substantial 90-day finding for the American burying beetle. We found the petition presented substantial information indicating that delisting may be warranted. The Service prepared a species status assessment (SSA) report that will support the subsequent 12-month finding. The Service will complete the 12-month finding in FY 2017. Information can be sent to Kevin Stubbs in the Oklahoma Field Office at kevin_stubbs@fws.gov.

9. Rufa Red Knot Proposed Critical Habitat Determination (All States) – On January 12, 2015, the Service’s final rule to list the rufa red knot as a threatened species throughout its range became effective. The range includes: Argentina, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, France (Guadeloupe, French Guiana), Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the United States (AL, AR, CT, CO, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, NE, NC, ND, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, VA, VT, WI, WV, WY, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands). Interior states are included in the range because rufa red knots have been documented in those states during migration.

 

Documents pertaining to the listing rulemaking can be found at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/redknot/

 

The Service is developing a critical habitat determination for the red knot; a publication date for this determination has not been set. For more information, contact Krishna Gifford in our Regional Office at krishna_gifford@fws.gov.

10. Big Sandy Crayfish and Guyandotte River Crayfish Critical Habitat Designation (VA, WV, KY) – On April 7, 2016, the Service published the final rule to list the Big Sandy crayfish (Cambarus callainus) as threatened and the Guyandotte River crayfish (C. veteranus) as endangered. The Service is developing a draft proposed critical habitat designation rule for these crayfishes.

 

Documents pertaining to the rulemaking can be found at the following links:

Final rule: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2016-04-07/pdf/2016-07744.pdf

Big Sandy and Guyandotte River Crayfishes website: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/crayfish/

For more information, contact Keith Hastie in our Regional Office at keith_hastie@fws.gov.

11. Frosted Elfin Butterfly SSA to Inform Conservation Strategy – (AL, AR, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, KS, LA, MA, MD, MI, NC, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VA, VT, WI, WV; Canada (Ontario) The Service is proactively assessing the conservation status of the frosted elfin (Callophrys irus), including whether or not the species may warrant Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Service has prioritized the frosted elfin’s status review, using the July 2016 Methodology for Assessing Status Reviews, as a Bin 4 (species for which proactive conservation efforts by states, landowners and stakeholders are underway or being developed). As such, making a recommendation on the frosted elfin’s status is scheduled for September 30, 2023 on our National Listing Workplan. To facilitate coordination among partners and implementation of conservation actions, we have committed to drafting a conservation strategy for the species by December 31, 2017. The New York Field Office is the lead office for this effort.

 

In support of developing the conservation strategy, we will conduct two out of three components of a Species Status Assessment (SSA). The SSA will use the best available scientific information to evaluate the species’ needs, as well as its past and current resiliency, redundancy, and representation. The SSA analysis for the frosted elfin will provide supporting biological information to draft a conservation strategy for this species and ensure that we are focusing on the primary drivers of its viability in the most appropriate locations. Prior to making a recommendation on its status in FY2023, we will revise and update the SSA to add the final component, projecting the future status of the species. A request for information will be sent to the States, Tribes, Federal agencies, and other partners in late March-early April 2017. We are currently seeking information about the species’ occurrence, host plants, potential stressors, and conservation actions. We will accept information at any time, but it would be most helpful to receive that information by April 30, 2017. For more information, please contact Robyn Niver in our New York Field Office at robyn_niver@fws.gov.

12. Yellow Banded Bumble bee (CT, IL, KY, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MT, NC, ND, NH, NY, OH, PA, RI, SD, TN, VA, VT, WI, WV, Canada) – On March 16, 2016, the Service published a Federal Register notice announcing a substantial 90-day finding on a petition to list the yellow banded bumblebee received in 2015 from the Defenders of Wildlife. We found the petition presented substantial indicating that listing may be warranted based on the potential threats to the species from habitat loss, degradation, or modification (agricultural intensification and urban development), disease (Locustacarus buchneri and Nosema bombi), the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and other natural or manmade factors (via climate change, the use of pesticides, and population dynamics and structure). The Service has initiated a species status review and will prepare a species status assessment (SSA) report, which will support a 12-month finding. We will complete the 12-month finding by September 30, 2018. Information can be sent to Sandra Lary in our Regional Office at sandra_lary@fws.gov.

13. Brook Floater Freshwater Mussel SSA to Inform 12-Month Finding – (CT, DC, GA, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, Canada). In April 2010, the Service received a petition to list the Brook Floater (Alasmidonta varicosa) as threatened or endangered. On September 27, 2011, the Service issued a 90-day finding that the petition presented substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. The Service has initiated a species status review and will prepare a species status assessment (SSA) report, which will support a 12-month finding. As part of the National Listing Workplan the Service will complete the 12-month finding by September 30, 2018.

 

Documents pertaining to the finding can be found at: https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp0/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=F03D

 

For more information, contact Sandie Doran in our New York Field Office at sandra_doran@fws.gov

14. Seaside Alder SSA to Inform 12-Month Finding – (DE, MD, GA, OK). In April 2010, CBD petitioned the Service to list the seaside alder (Alnus maritima) as threatened or endangered. On September 27, 2011, the Service issued a 90-day finding that the petition presented substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. The Service has initiated a species status review and will prepare a species status assessment (SSA) report, which will support a 12-month finding. As part of the National Listing Workplan the Service will complete the 12-month finding by September 30, 2018. For more information, contact Cherry Keller in our Chesapeake Bay Field Office at cherry_keller@fws.gov.

15. Elk River Crayfish SSA to Inform 12-Month Finding – (WV). In April 2010, CBD petitioned the Service to list the Elk River crayfish (Cambarus elkensis) as threatened or endangered. On September 27, 2011, the Service issued a 90-day finding that the petition presented substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. The Service has initiated a species status review and will prepare a species status assessment (SSA) report, which will support a 12-month finding. As part of the National Listing Workplan the Service will complete the 12-month finding by September 30, 2018. For more information, contact Barbara Douglas in our West Virginia Field Office at barbara_douglas@fws.gov. 15) Tippecanoe Darter SSA to Inform 12-Month Finding (IN, KY, OH, PA, TN, WV). In April 2010, CBD petitioned the Service to list the Tippecanoe darter (Etheostoma tippecanoe) as threatened or endangered. On September 27, 2011, the Service issued a 90- day finding that the petition presented substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted. The Service has initiated a species status review and will prepare a species status assessment (SSA) report, which will support a 12-month finding. As part of the National Listing Workplan the Service will complete the 12-month finding by September 30, 2018. For more information, contact Melinda Turner in our Pennsylvania Field Office at melinda_turner@fws.gov.

16. Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail Petition (NY) – The Service received a petition dated January 6, 2012, to designate critical habitat for the Chittenango ovate amber snail; adopt a rule to prohibit hydraulic fracturing and related activities within 3,000 feet of the boundaries of critical habitat designated for any federally threatened or endangered species; and adopt a rule requiring any state to consult with the Service prior to issuing any permits for activities that might adversely impact the ecosystem upon which critical habitat is directly dependent for any listed species. These actions are petitionable under the Administrative Procedure Act but not the ESA. On November 9, 2012, we sent a letter to the petitioner stating that we have determined that critical habitat designation would not provide significant conservation benefit to the snail and that therefore we will not designate critical habitat for the species. We have not yet responded to the petitioner's second and third rulemaking requests. For more information, contact Robyn Niver in our New York Field Office at robyn_niver@fws.gov.

New Article on the Influence of Arsenic and Sulfate on Freshwater Mussel Gene Expression

Abstract

Freshwater mussels of the Clinch and Powell rivers of Virginia in the southeastern United States have been heavily impacted by runoff, leachates, or spills of materials related to coal extraction, processing, and use. Assays quantifying sublethal impacts of such wastes are needed. We assessed gene transcriptional markers in a laboratory study under controlled conditions, focusing upon arsenic (arsenate, As(V)) and sulphate, contaminants related to coal mining and processing. Pheasantshells Actinonaias pectorosa collected from the Clinch River were subjected to a 28-day chronic exposure to control or environmentally relevant concentrations of each compound. We compared gene expression in digestive gland among parasite-free, female pheasantshells among control and contaminant-exposed individuals using the Illumina HiSeq platform. Statistically significant differential expression of particular genes was observed among control mussels and those exposed to either arsenate or sulfate. Chemical stress was as likely to cause underexpression as it was to cause over-expression of particular genes. Arsenate and sulfate induced up- or down-expression of different suites of 50-100 genes. Our results provide proof-of-principle for using RNAseq technology to approach issues of toxicogenomics in freshwater mussels. The candidate markers could be validated for quantitative PCR assays for rapidly assessing single-gene responses to exposure to toxic compounds.

 

You can access the full article at: https://www.intechopen.com/books/organismal-and-molecular-malacology/freshwater-mussels-exposed-to-arsenic-and-sulfate-show-contrasting-patterns-of-gene-expression

The Soft Things - article from Oxford American

THE SOFT THINGS By   |  June 13, 2017 “Efflorescence” © Sally Gall. Courtesy of the artist and the Julie Saul Gallery
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If you are the type whose eyes get caught on beautiful things, you might find, should you be lucky enough to see inside a freshwater mussel, that your gaze will linger on the smooth, nacreous basins of its upturned shell. Last summer, at the Paul W. Parmalee Malacological Collection that’s housed in the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture at the University of Tennessee, my eyes landed in the two basins of a bivalve’s shell and I could not quit looking: an iridescent porcelain with a nebula of pink at the curved edges as if opening into another dimension. And then there was the periostracum, the outside of the shell: satiny gold-green and streaked irregularly with rays the color of algae. This was the shell of an Epioblasma brevidens, the endangered Cumberlandian combshell.

Cumberlandian is also the name of the region comprising the Tennessee and Cumberland river watersheds that biologists have recognized as containing the richest freshwater mussel fauna in the world. Floating placidly on a pontoon atop the Fort Loudoun Lake impoundment, almost within sight of the museum in Knoxville, you can point a finger straight down into the opaque depths where once, some eighty feet below, there stretched a broad complex of shoals—banks of cobble, gravel, pebble, and sand with clear water riffling over them. Between the cobble and the gravel and the pebble, mussels buried themselves into the sand by the thousands or tens of thousands, protruding from the riverbed like strange bulbs. Now, more nonliving specimens can be found in the museum than living ones downhill of it in the Tennessee River—a river that you might call a series of deep, silty lakes. The region’s remaining native mussels (ninety-six species) are hanging on, though, tenaciously, in the many tributaries.

The Epioblasma genus has lost seventeen species in Tennessee—species that thrived in big rivers with shallow habitats like what the Tennessee River once provided, before it was impounded by dams. “Those mussels that were endemic to the Tennessee River proper are all pretty much gone, and they aren’t coming back,” Gerry Dinkins, the collection’s curator, said to me. It is not just dams that have hurt mussel populations. You know this story: habitat loss, agricultural runoff, erosion due to development, silt, pollution from sewage, coal mining, oil and gas drilling. Overall, 70 percent of Tennessee’s mussel species have gone extinct or suffered a significant decline in the last century.

For days in a row I returned to visit the cool museum basement, where thousands of specimens like the Epioblasma brevidens are housed—more than a hundred thousand of them. Gerry’s assistant, a graduate student named Kristin Irwin, had spent the summer cataloguing: numbering them and entering them into a database, with information about where and when each specimen was collected. Many were from the personal collection of the late zooarchaeologist Paul Parmalee, whose passion for freshwater mussels was sparked by his excavations of the region’s shell middens—massive heaps of shell that humans piled up on the riverbanks beginning some ten thousand years ago. Mussels were a major food source for indigenous people, who made both temporary camps and permanent settlements next to mussel-rich areas of the river.

“Which ones are you interested in seeing?” Kristin asked me.

“All of them,” I said.

She was happy to entertain my request. As an undergraduate in environmental studies, Kristin had fallen for mussels. For her, it began with the circular lines that appear on the outside of the shells. Mussels, which can live more than one hundred years, have the longest lifespan of all freshwater invertebrates, and they form growth rings like trees do that help biologists to determine their age. Kristin is the only student in her graduate program pursuing the mysteries of these little-known bivalves. In the sciences, they are not among the most charismatic creatures. And yet to some, they captivate.

Kristin handed me the two halves of a Tennessee pigtoe, also endemic to the Cumberlandian region, currently petitioned to be listed as endangered. “Pleuronia barnesiana,” she said. “I love this one.”

I took it in my hands. It was labeled in a neat yet shaky script: “Duck River, Hooper Island, Maury Co., TN. 7/21/77.” A small, round, thick shell, the outside smooth and brown, with dark concentric ridges—the growth rings. I turned it under the hanging fluorescents. Its nacre—the interior layer—was the white of a winter sky, distant light gathering behind thick cumulus.

Mussels are of the Mollusca phylum, which also includes squid and octopuses; the Latin word molluscus was adapted from a Greek phrase meaning “the soft things.” As they evolved, during the Cambrian Period, around five hundred and forty million years ago, some mollusks began to enclose their soft bodies in shells of calcium carbonate that could be hinged open. These became the Bivalvia class (the Latin bi- meaning “two” and valvaemeaning “leaves of a door”), which includes clams and oysters, filter feeders that latched on to rock or buried themselves in sediment and crawled slowly along the ocean floor. Freshwater bivalves evolved by sending their larvae up rivers in the gills of spawning salmon. Now, like their ocean ancestors, they live out some of the most obscure lives on the planet, clasped in a darkness of their own creation, sometimes for up to a century or more. “Under a firmament of nacre,” wrote the French poet Francis Ponge about the oyster. A firmament, yes, because, like the sky, it is vast and ancient. Because, like the sky, you can get lost in it.

I placed the valves back together and they met with a satisfying clank, like a locket. While I was lost in the pigtoe, Kristin had slid open another of the metal drawers in which the specimens were stored and selected the next for me. “Villosa vanuxemensis,” she said, gently placing it in my palm.

We went on like this. There was the heavy, bumpy shell of Cyclonaias tuberculata, the purple wartyback, with a nacre the color of blueberry bubblegum. And the oblong Cumberlandia monodonta, the spectaclecase. True to its name, it could have held within it a pair of reading glasses. There was Epioblasma triquetra, the snuffbox, which would have been, yes, the perfect place to keep a pinch of snuff. And the tiny southern acornshell, several of which would have fit into a squirrel’s cheek.

There was the fat floater, the narrow catspaw, the sugarspoon, the golden riffleshell. The rabbitsfoot, the cracking pearlymussel, the tubercled blossom, the finelined pocketbook, and the Tennessee heelsplitter. The giant washboard, the orangefoot pimpleback, the sheepnose, the pink mucket, the fragile papershell, and the Appalachian monkeyface. The pistolgrip, the fawnsfoot, the pale lilliput. The pondhorn, the bankclimber, and the rayed bean. And that was only the beginning.

I held shells of all sizes, colors, textures, thicknesses, weights, and shapes. As she passed each to me, Kristin told me what she liked about it, pointed out the features that made it unique. “Truncilla truncata,” she said, handing me one. “This is my favorite. The deer toe. See the chevron patterns on the periostracum?” Angled lines on the shell resembled the prints of the hooves of a deer, walking a path across it. Its color was spruce with bands of mossy-yellow.

“This isn’t the animal,” Kristin reminded me. “This is only the animal’s secretion.”

 

To see the animal, I went to the Clinch River, at Kyles Ford, in the far northeast corner of the state, where many of the museum’s specimens had been collected. Nearly a dozen state and federal wildlife agents had gathered there in September in an effort to revive native mussel populations. Biologists had been sent from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and even the Appalachian region’s Office of Surface Mining, which employs only two (together responsible for monitoring the effects of mining on aquatic species from the border of Canada in Michigan to the coast of Alabama). Because Kyles Ford has so many diverse species, as well as high numbers of individual mussels, the Mollusk Recovery Program aimed to harvest mussels here and move them into other rivers in the hope that healthy populations can be reestablished throughout the region.

When I arrived in the late afternoon, a shirtless wildlife agent was hanging a wetsuit to dry on the open door of his truck. He lit a cigar and puffed it, releasing a cloud of smoke. I walked over and introduced myself, and he led me through a field of tall weeds, the smell of cigar and goldenrod and river wafting up to me. We came to the bank of a narrow channel that was separated from the main body of the river by a small sandbar. Several agents in wetsuits were hauling in their harvests in heavy mesh bags, while some were still face-down, snorkels sticking up from the shallow currents. Harvesting selectively—to ensure that a sufficient number of both females and males are collected from a checklist of species—requires a close-up view of the riverbed. Snorkeling agents plucked mussels from the substrate like turnips from loose soil, filled their bags with them.

I met Don Hubbs, coordinator of the Mollusk Recovery Program, onshore. He wore a khaki shirt with a TWRA patch on the breast and a fisherman’s hat and sat with his feet in the channel and a clipboard on his lap. Next to him, a wide, flat rock served as a field table. In front of it, an agent sat on a bucket turned upside down in the stream. He lifted a red mesh bag from where it had lain submerged along with many others and emptied it out in a pile,  the shells clattering onto the rock, a molluscan ruckus. Unlike the ones in the museum, all of these shells were closed, held tightly shut by the creatures’ adductor muscles. (Kristin had told me that the living ones are “almost humanly impossible to pry open.”)

Epioblasma capsaeformis,” the agent on the bucket said, and Don made a mark on his clipboard. The two agents began to count, taking mussels from the large pile and making smaller piles, saying numbers under their breath, and Don turned to me to speak. “The oystermussel,” he said quietly, just above the clatter and the current.

“Its host fish are fantail or redline darters, and those darters feed on aquatic insects,” he told me. Don sounded like a cowboy telling a lonesome story. “So the female oyster will put out a lure with two little antennae.” He pronounced it anten-ee. He wiggled two fingers around, mimicking the mussel that mimics an aquatic insect. “She’ll just wiggle them little antennae,” he said. “Then a darter will come, and she’ll grab on and pump glochidia into its gills.”

Because mussels are mostly sedentary, they rely on fish to carry their larvae, or glochidia, upstream, just as their long-ago ancestors first used salmon to move from a life in the ocean to a riverine existence. Each species of mussel has developed its own unique lure to bait the species of fish that is able to transport its progeny; larvae are chemically unable to bind to the gills of fish that are not their hosts. The fish, too, have perhaps adapted receptor cells in their gills that will respond only to a certain mussel. No one actually knows the full intricacy of the relationship, for the lives of freshwater mussels remain so little known, little seen. A very small number of scientists have ever studied them.

Still waiting on the count, Don told me of another, the birdwing pearlymussel. “Its host fish is a banded darter, and banded darters feed on snails,” he said. “So the birdwing puts out a lure that looks like a little snail climbing up a rock.” He shaped his left index into a snail and his right fist into a rock, his index crawling up his fist. “When the darter comes up to bite that snail, it gets a cloud of larvae instead. So you have a mollusk imitating a mollusk to trick a vertebrate.”

You might call this adaptation “smart.” But mussels have no brains—no eyes, even. In much the same way that orchids adapted a myriad of shapes, olfactory cocktails, colors, and petal arrangements in order to attract their pollinators, Don told me, mussels have formed a myriad of lure designs to attract their hosts. When a gravid female hinges open the doors of her shell and sends out a lure, it is as if an orchid is blooming under the current.

The count was in. “Four hundred ninety-four,” the agent called out, and Don scribbled it down on his clipboard. I was reminded of the signature line of Don’s email—an E. O. Wilson quote: “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper.” Here, Don was doing both at once.

After returning the oystermussels to their bag in the stream, the agents dumped out the next and began to count pheasantshells. Don, peering into the water, noticed something. He dipped his hand in and brought up a mussel that he laid in my palm. “Dromus dromas,” he said. “The dromedary. Dromedary is a type of camel.” He paused while I felt the distinctive hump on the shell. The mussel is critically endangered, he told me, with the only remaining populations here and in one of the Clinch’s tributaries.

Another wet-suited agent, Steve Ahlstedt, had come in to deliver his harvest. Others had spoken of Steve as “the Tennessee mussel guy.” A retired biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Steve keeps involved in conservation efforts. He climbed the bank and stood dripping, gestured toward the sweep of river. “Kyles Ford is the most biologically diverse spot in North America for mussels,” he proclaimed excitedly. He picked up the empty shell of a spectaclecase and examined it.

The agents were piling up pheasantshells, mumbling numbers. “Sun’s gone down,” Don mused. There was much counting left to do. Tomorrow I would join Steve and a team of several others at another river fifty miles south, where we would seed the riverbed with these mussels.

 

From where it begins in western North Carolina, the Nolichucky River drains some of the most rugged country in the East, cuts narrowly through the Unaka Mountains, and snakes out in long meanders, before it finally joins the French Broad, a tributary of the Tennessee. To look at a map of the region is to see a land stitched with fine threads of blue—thousands, there is no counting them all. These reaches of southern Appalachia were never touched by the glaciers that spread intermittently across the northern parts of the mountains over the past two million years. While waterways to the north were locked in ice, these kept flowing, and life here continued to evolve and adapt into great intricacy. Many species are endemic, occurring in only one or two streams. That makes this diversity not only astounding but also tenuous. The Nolichucky historically hosted an estimated forty species of mussels; now it is home to twenty-nine.

Steve threw me a wetsuit. The sun was full and high above Evans Island, hot for September, but the water after several hours might bring on a chill. A handful of male agents were suiting up behind the open doors of the two trucks we had driven. In the beds of the trucks were fifty-gallon coolers that we had packed full of mussels that morning, carrying the mesh bags up from the narrow channel at Kyles Ford, where they had spent the night submerged. Behind a wooden privy I squeezed myself into the black neoprene suit.

We lugged the bags to the bank, steep and high with grasses, where we descended a metal ladder to the pebbly shore. We forded the river through a current that tugged at the knees, to a small island. Steve pointed each of us in a direction. “Find a sandy spot and wedge them down into the substrate,” he said. He bent down and demonstrated with one, pushing it into the soft sand. “That’s it.” We dispersed.

Underwater, through my snorkeling mask, the world became more vivid. The water shimmered with miniscule specks of mica that floated and drifted like dust, illuminated in the wide beams of sun that fell through the surface. The mica still washes down from old mines upstream. Snails clung to the rocks. A minnow the size of my pinky finger, with steady, alert eyes, plied the current.

I placed my palms against the riverbed and let my legs float out behind me as I took Elliptio dilatata, or spikes, one by one from my mesh bag and pushed them into the substrate. I saw that some mussels had their feeding apertures open, a lattice of comblike gills through which they filtered suspended organic material such as phytoplankton, zooplankton, algae, diatoms, bacteria, and detritus, each individual processing up to fifty gallons of the water column a day, so that a whole population of mussels works as a natural filtering system at the bottom of the river. I watched as one aperture sucked things in as the hose of a vacuum sucks in dirt, and another aperture shot out tiny pellets of waste that macro-invertebrates such as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis flies would then eat.

Once or twice I lifted my head above the surface to see the black wetsuits floating upstream, the snorkels sticking out. Each time I did this, I was eager to put my head back under the water, to reenter that other world. My ears submerged, I heard only the muted scrape of sand scouring the bottoms of the rocks that I put the weight of my hands and arms against. All else was silent.

Among large, smooth stones and smaller, more jagged pieces of rock, a pocketbook mussel had cracked open the doors of her shell. Between the two valves there stretched a matrix of soft tissue; the mussel, a female, had extended what’s called a mantle, a thick, creamy protrusion of flesh with gray mottling. At the top of the mantle, two flaps came together to form the shape of a minnow, complete with an eyelike dot on each side. It looked nearly identical to the minnow I had seen moments before.

Holding on to a rock, I pulled myself closer until I floated facedown just above it. The tail and fins of the imitation minnow billowed along every frilled edge. I could see the mussel contracting her mantle at regular intervals with subtle pulses, which caused the “minnow” to shimmy its body side to side.

Bass eat the minnows that the pocketbook mussel mimics. I waited and watched, hoping that at any moment a bass might come and grab the bait so that I could witness the mussel snapping closed the halves of her shell on the bass’s mouth, the bass trying to wriggle away, the mussel grasping it within her strongly clenched shell as she pumped a spray of larvae from her marsupium pouch into the gills of the bass—and then the release, the bass propelling away from her, the mussel relaxing.

A rock shifted under the grip of my hand. In a quick movement, the mussel withdrew the flaps of her mantle, pulled the lure in, and sealed herself closed. It looked then like nothing more than a brown rock.

I turned back to the spikes, pushing each down into the sand, leaving only the tops exposed, where they would later open to feed, or, if gravid, to display lures. I worked my way across the width of the river that Steve had assigned to me, spacing the mussels out in rows as if planting a crop, pulling the mesh bag through the water. We planted some fifteen species that day in different patches of the river, several hundred of each, every one of them pushed into the substrate by a hand. Each hand had been attached to a human who hoped to restore a piece of the world that could easily be forgotten.

 

When a mussel dies in its shell, its adductor muscles no longer hold the valves tightly closed. The shell, once almost humanly impossible to pry apart, hinges open, and a puddle of flesh lies inert inside. The Mollusk Recovery Program biologists had noticed many shells like this that day at Kyles Ford in September. They spoke quietly about it and did not tell me, Steve said later, because they were not yet sure—but they suspected a problem.

In October, I was shocked when Steve wrote to me to say that a widespread die-off was underway in the Clinch, for a stretch of thirty miles, upstream and downstream of Kyles Ford, where the mussels had been gathered only weeks before. When they went back to investigate, he explained, they found the open shells of mussels scattered all along the shoals. Steve picked up shells and turned them over; black Jell-O plopped out of them.

They did not know the cause. There were many factors to look at: herbicides being sprayed under nearby power lines, coal mining upstream in Virginia, oil and gas drilling, contaminated sediments, illegal dumping from bridges. Those shells, the animal’s secretion—an adaptation meant to enclose the soft things and protect them from harm—cannot protect them from the secretions of human industry that ooze and seep past all barriers. Steve picked up thousands of shells of freshly dead mussels, and he left thousands more there. The thousands that he gathered he took to the McClung Museum, where they will be cleaned, catalogued, and curated into the collection.

I go to the shelf where I have lined up the shells that I collected last summer. I open one and stare into its opalescent basin. The nacre inside is seen only when the animal dies. Why this beauty? Kristin and I had wondered at the museum. The spectrum of colors in that milky sheen cannot be seen by predators, or by the eyeless animal that creates it. At death, light spills in and reveals the animal’s creation. I think of all that secret shining tucked away in riverbeds, inside the drab, brownish, stonelike exteriors.

I clank the shell back together. It fits inside my palm. This isn’t the animal. Just proof—beautiful, hard proof—that it once existed.

 

Holly Haworth received the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism. She was a Jackson Fellow at Hollins University, where she earned an MFA. Her work also appears in Orion, the On Being radio program blog, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

"Nobody Trashes Tennessee" - TDOT sponsored litter removal campaign

Green What?

That is what some of us were wondering at the June chamber meeting when Alyssa Grizenko, Executive Director of Greensteps Chattanooga, introduced herself. She had come at the invitation of Mayor Jackson to hear Laura Williams, Tennessee Department of Transportation Environmental Outreach Coordinator, talk about the new litter prevention campaign recently launched by TDOT. You’ll be hearing more about “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” in the months to come. But back to Greensteps . . .

“Greensteps is a community focused initiative that incentivizes the act of picking up and throwing away litter around popular trails, crags, parks and tourist destinations in and around the Chattanooga area”. You can even accumulate points for prizes. Okay, are you starting to feel a little warm and fuzzy inside but not actually good yet? Stick with us . . .

During the chamber meeting, Alyssa announced that Greensteps was organizing a clean-up event along a stretch of Suck Creek Mountain in Marion County and that volunteers would be picking up trash there on June 25th.  That’s nice. We wondered how they did . . .

Email from Alyssa + pictures says it all:

The event went better than expected. Over 60 people showed up and together we collected around 200 bags of trash, a toilet, a baby car seat, chicken wire and a lot of tires. I have attached some photos to this email. Thank you and Mayor Jackson for your support, and I will send you pictures of the stations (trash bin and trash bag dispenser), once they are installed, which should be today.”

A toilet! That’s disgusting. So, we could concentrate on those that litter and why. There’s a time and a place for that. But for today, let’s concentrate on good citizens like the Greensteps volunteers who care enough to pick up trash regardless of where it came from. Since the chamber began our own litter prevention campaign, examples of caring people are popping up everywhere. From little children to senior citizens, there are people who “Help Keep Marion County Beautiful.”

Thanks to all of you with a special thanks today to Greensteps!

Judy Blevins, Administrative Assistant, Marion County Chamber of Commerce

Northeast States Release Report on Hellbender Distribution

The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large, fully aquatic salamander that prefers clear, fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams and rivers. They are found throughout the Appalachian region from southern New York to Georgia, and in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. The hellbender is declining in many parts of its range and has been identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The species is broadly distributed and very cryptic, making it difficult to thoroughly map its distribution using traditional approaches that rely on rock-turning to find hellbenders.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys are a relatively new approach to determining if aquatic species are present at a location. The hellbender is well suited for eDNA monitoring because it is rare, secretive, and likely sensitive to disturbance from rock-turning surveys. As aquatic species, hellbenders exude many sources of DNA into their environment including skin, feces, blood, spermatozoa, and eggs.

Like many rare species with distribution among several states, their conservation is improved when states can share knowledge and resources and work together through efficient state partnerships. This study sought to fill major data gaps in hellbender distribution throughout the northeast, and develop standardized protocols for hellbender research and monitoring and a communication framework for hellbender researchers and population managers across the region.

This project provided broad-scale knowledge about the hellbender’s distribution and generated measurable benefits for public education and wildlife conservation by engaging a large group of citizen scientists in eDNA collection. The resulting archive of frozen eDNA samples represents a ‘snapshot’ of entire biological communities at the time of sample collection, which could serve as a valuable resource for future inventory and monitoring of native fauna, introduced species, and aquatic pathogens. Through these collective efforts and the support of the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, this project established an effective framework for region-wide hellbender conservation that has resulted in a better understanding of the species’ distribution, public engagement in conservation efforts, and tangible resources to benefit wildlife conservation in the northeastern U.S.