For Immediate Release, June 17, 2014

Contact: Tierra Curry (928)–522-3681

Lawsuit Filed to Save Two Fish, Crayfish and Mussel From Extinction in
Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for failing to protect four aquatic species from the Southeast under the Endangered Species Act. The Center petitioned for protection for the animals — two fish, a crayfish and a mussel — in 2010, but the Service has failed to make a decision on their protection. The Barrens darter, holiday darter, Atlantic pigtoe and slenderclaw crayfish are at risk of extinction due primarily to water pollution and dams. Alabama is home to the holiday darter and the crayfish; the Barrens darter is found only in Tennessee; and the Atlantic pigtoe mussel lives in Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina. 

Slenderclaw crayfish
Slenderclaw crayfish photo by Guenter Schuster. This photo is available for media use.

“It’s important that we save freshwater animals from extinction because protecting aquatic species, even the tiny ones, will help protect the clean water that both people and wildlife need to survive,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center.

The Southeast is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else in the world, but the region has already lost more than 50 freshwater animals to extinction. The two darters, crayfish and the mussel are on the list of 10 species across the country that the Center is prioritizing for Endangered Species Act protection this fiscal year. Under a settlement agreement with the Service that expedites protection decisions for 757 species, the Center can push forward 10 listing decisions per year. Five of the 10 species on this year’s priority list are freshwater species from the Southeast because the region is a global hot spot of biodiversity and extinction.

“The Southeast has an incredibly rich natural heritage, and we need to do everything we can to keep it intact for our children and for future generations,” said Curry.

Species Background
Barrens darters are 3-inch-long, brown-and-cream speckled fish found only in central Tennessee in the Barren Fork and Lower Collins watersheds in Cannon, Coffee and Warren counties. Among the rarest fishes in North America, the darters are threatened in their small range by water pollution from erosion, pesticides and cattle, and by drought and groundwater decline. They likely survive in fewer than 10 streams. Runoff and silt entering the water can fill in the spaces between rocks that darters need to hide and build nests; males build nests and then defend them from predators, and females choose to mate with larger males.

Holiday darters are 2 inches long and are found in the Coosa River watershed in Alabama and in the upper Conasauga, upper Coosawattee and upper Etowah watersheds in Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. The tiny fish are threatened by sprawl, dams, natural gas extraction and runoff from logging. Males turn bright red, blue and green during the breeding season. Populations of the holiday darter in different areas may actually be different species, and scientists are studying the different populations and writing new species descriptions.

The Atlantic pigtoe is a 2-inch-long, yellow to dark-brown mussel that often has beautiful streaks across the back of the shell. It is unique in that its shell is rhomboid shaped and the outer surface has an odd texture like cloth or parchment. It is sensitive to pollution and is wiped out from areas with poor water quality. It was once widespread along the southern Atlantic slope, ranging from the Ogeechee River basin in Georgia north to the James River basin in Virginia but has undergone drastic decline. Only a few individual mussels now survive in most locations, and only three populations are considered to be healthy. It is threatened by dams and by water pollution from development, agriculture and logging. It was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991. In South Carolina it once occurred in the Savannah River drainage but has not been collected in the state in more than 100 years. It still occurs in the Pee Dee River system of North Carolina and in other North Carolina watersheds, including the Cape Fear, Catawba, Neuse, Pamlico and Roanoke river basins.

The slenderclaw crayfish is 3 inches long and has attractive cream-and-orange mottling against its brown shell. In a newly published study, scientists surveyed 55 locations in an effort to find the crayfish but concluded that it is now missing from the vast majority of its range, only surviving at one site. Most of its habitat was flooded when the Tennessee River was dammed to create Lake Guntersville. Crayfish, also known as crawdads or crawfish, are considered to be a keystone animal because the holes they dig create habitat used by more than 400 other species, including bass, catfish, frogs and small mammals. Crayfish keep streams cleaner by eating decaying plants and animals, and they are eaten in turn by fish, giant salamanders and otters, making them an important link in the food chain.

The other species in today’s lawsuit include the Alexander Archipelago wolf from Alaska, the San Bernardino flying squirrel, the Ichetucknee siltsnail from Florida, the black-backed woodpecker from California and South Dakota, and Kirtland’s snake from the Midwest. Under the landmark settlement the Center and the Service reached in 2011, 118 species have already gained Endangered Species Act protection, and another 24 have been proposed for protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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