Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 22, 2014

Contact:  Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Four Freshwater Species Move Toward Endangered Species Act Protection In
Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia,  North Carolina

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.— The Center for Biological Diversity reached a legal agreement today requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make decisions on Endangered Species Act protection for the Atlantic pigtoe mussel, slenderclaw crayfish and two fishes, the Barrens darter and the holiday darter. The Center petitioned for protection for the species in 2010, and in 2011 the Service determined that all four may warrant federal protection. As a result of today’s agreement, the Service must make protection decisions for the animals by 2018. The species are facing extinction due to water pollution and dams.

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

“Protecting these little creatures that we don’t often think about, like mussels and crawdads, will also help protect the health of the water people need,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center.

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. 

“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 of these species to extinction,” said Curry. “We need to do everything we can to safeguard the Southeast’s rivers for future generations.”

The four Southeast freshwater species are among 10 species across the country that will receive protection decisions under today’s settlement. The other species 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, which is considered as two “distinct populations,” and Kirtland’s snake from the Midwest. The animals are facing extinction for many reasons, chief among them habitat loss from logging and sprawl, groundwater overuse and climate change.

Under its landmark settlement agreement reached with the Service in 2011 for 757 imperiled species across the country, the Center can seek expedited protection decisions for 10 species per year. To date, 137 species have gained Endangered Species Act protection as the result of the agreement, and another six have been proposed for protection.

Species Background
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 in shape, 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. The species 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.

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.

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 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 web.

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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