SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Mention “endangered species” and bald eagles come to mind. So do gray wolves and grizzlies.

Scientists have a term for it: “charismatic megafauna,” referring to those animals that snag the lion’s share of attention — as well as support.

Except for a handful of malacologists, no one thinks of  freshwater mussels when they think of endangered species. Yet, they are the most endangered group of animals in the nation, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Nature Conservancy reports that 70 percent of the continent’s freshwater mussels are either extinct or imperiled.

The Neosho Mucket is a mussel that was once common throughout the region. Today, it has been eliminated from two-thirds of its former range; only about half — nine of 16 — of its historic populations survive. And only one of those, a population found in the Spring River north of Joplin, is reproducing at a level that can sustain it, say scientists.

Malacologists — scientists who study mollusks — say that two centuries of aggressive harvesting, dam building, pollution, sedimentation and other changes have compromised or outright destroyed mussels and their habitat.

“There are places I would find mussels 20 years ago that I can’t find (them) now,” said Chris Barnhart, a biology professor at Missouri State University in Springfield and one of the leading experts on mussels in the Midwest. “We also know why they are going extinct. They are being lost because of water pollution, particularly ammonia.”

In the basement of Temple Hall on the MSU campus, there’s an effort underway to save the region’s freshwater mussels. This is not a high-dollar operation, using as it does plastic buckets from Lowe’s, sewer and PVC pipe, and plastic stock tanks made for watering cattle. 

But the scientists behind it have had some victories.

What they have learned here about the impact of ammonia on mussels has led to tougher federal standards implemented nationwide.

And mussels raised at MSU and in conjunction with their partner, the Kansas City Zoo, have been restocked in the Midwest, including the Neosho mucket.

They have had defeats, too.

A century ago, Curtis’ Pearlymussel was described as common along the White River and also found in its tributaries in Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas, but it hasn’t been seen anywhere for two decades.

“That species has gone extinct in our lifetime,” said Barnhart.

Other pearlymussels have suffered the same fate. 

“There were 25 species in that genus. I think there are only 10 of them left, so that genus is more than half extinct,” Barnhart said.

He called it “the undoing of the natural world.”

Unlucky Rabbitsfoot

In 2011, a settlement between the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resolved a nine-year lawsuit. It required the federal agency to make decisions on 757 species that had either been petitioned to be put on the Endangered Species list or were candidates for the list.

Among them were the Neosho mucket and another mussel, the rabbitsfoot, which was found in parts of 15 states historically, including Missouri and Arkansas. Like the Neosho mucket, it has been eliminated from two-thirds of its former range.

Tierra Curry, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “Freshwater mussels are the most imperiled group of organisms in the world. There are several different levels of why it matters. I believe we have a moral obligation to look out for them. We are losing part of the web of life, the biological diversity.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until 2018 to make decisions on those 757 species. It knocked two off last year, when it added to the Neosho mucket and the rabbitsfoot to its list of threatened and endangered species. 

Without the lawsuit, neither mussel might be on the list yet, said Bryan Simmons, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the agency’s lead on endangered mussels in Missouri.

But lawsuits such as the one filed by the Center for Biological Diversity raise a number of questions, said Paul McKenzie, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missouri.

He noted that there are already 1,300 plants and animals on the endangered species list, hundreds more petitioned or proposed for listing, and many more species in decline.

“What happens if you list so many species that there is not enough money on the face of the earth to save them?” he asked.

“As a country, we need to make the Endangered Species Act a priority,” Curry replied. “Congress has to designate more money for recovery of endangered species.”

Economic impact

Challenges — legal, political and otherwise — are not over once a species gets listed. In fact, they are just beginning.

Soon after the official listing of the Neosho mucket and rabbitsfoot, the Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) and a number of other groups began raising questions  about the designation of what is known as “critical habitat” for the species. Critical habitat refers to those areas of habitat essential for the survival of a core population of a species.

Listing a species is based on science, officials say, but one step that has to be taken in order to designate critical habitat is an economic impact analysis — an assessment of the impact on jobs and development within the area designated as critical habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that designating critical habitat for the rabbitsfoot and the Neosho mucket would have an estimated economic impact of $4.4 million across 12 states over the course of 20 years. In other words, less than $20,000 per state per year.

Scientists hired by the AAC concluded the impact would be higher: Perhaps $20 million a year just for Arkansas alone, said Scott Perkins, AAC spokesman.

Designating part of the Illinois River in Northwest Arkansas as critical habitat for the Neosho mucket could affect bridge construction, for example, the AAC argued. They modeled the cost of not building one proposed bridge in Benton County over a tributary of the Illinois at $1.4 million and 10 jobs. The Illinois is one of those rivers with a surviving population of Neosho mucket mussels. 

The AAC concluded that 42 percent of Arkansas along nearly 800 river miles was being proposed as critical habitat, and a third of the state’s residents would be affected.

They asked for hearings to investigate the impact of the designations, worried about what it would mean for agriculture, timber, road projects and more.

“It is our strong belief that an overbroad designation of critical habitat for the rabbitsfoot mussel and the Neosho mucket mussel in Arkansas will have a significant impact upon the overall economy of Arkansas,” Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

Perkins said his agency is not indifferent to the plight of the mussels, and in fact, after hiring their own biologists, determined that some critical habitat designations were warranted. Their analysis modified the lengths of some rivers where they felt it unnecessary to designate the entire length. And it proposed removing other rivers in a couple of cases, where there were no recent occurrences of the mussels, or insufficient information to make a case.

It did not challenge designation of the Illinois River as critical habitat for the Neosho mucket.

“We want to be fair and support the Endangered Species Act and we understand its importance,” Perkins said.

His group also is supporting federal legislation requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to undertake more rigorous analysis of the economic impact of critical habitat designation and open up additional comment periods before making a final ruling.

Sky not falling

“Critical habitat is not as drastic as they think it is,” said Jim Boggs, Arkansas field office supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In fact, the agency concluded that its designation of critical habitat would affect only 8 percent of stream miles in the state. He said they disagree on the area of impact because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is only proposing the stream itself as critical habitat, but the AAC and others are arguing that it could impact the entire watershed.

He also explained that critical habitat designation becomes an issue only when federal money is involved, such as building a bridge over a river where the mussels are found. In that case, a survey would need to be done before bridge work could begin, and if mussels are found, modifications might be needed for the bridge, or the population of mussels might need moved.

For private companies and most landowners, Boggs said, the designation of critical habitat has little impact. Ranchers will still be able to water cattle in streams, or drive heavy equipment across stream beds. It only comes into play if that farmer is receiving federal money for a project, such as funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And most of the time, said Boggs, that’s no problem because money for agricultural programs is usually tied to conservation efforts.

Other Arkansas mussels have been on the endangered species list for decades, and critical habitat designation has never been a roadblock to development, said Chris Davidson, aquatic biologist in Arkansas for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There can be delays with surveys, relocations, but there hasn’t been a project that was stopped,” Davidson said. 

In fact, the federal agency has on many occasions in Arkansas moved mussels either upstream or downstream to accommodate bridges, pipelines and other projects.

Both Davidson and Boggs said there are often compromises that work for both the private sector and the endangered species. They noted that there is a population of rabbitsfoot mussels in the Black River in Northeast Arkansas, another critical habitat river. It’s also where Peco Foods is building a large poultry plant with 1,000 jobs. However, the plant will discharge ammonia, which is toxic to mussels.

Boggs said in that instance his agency met with the company and found an inexpensive solution: Move the discharge pipe 600 feet to protect the mussel population.

“Nobody at Fish and Wildlife will tell you there is no consequence,” to listing species as threatened or endangered, Boggs said, but he added the sky isn’t falling. 

“The word on the street is that the federal government can step in and tell you what you can and can’t do on private property. Not true.

“We have come across a lot of people who will tell us they don’t have a problem with protecting endangered species,” Boggs said, “but they don’t trust the federal government and they don’t believe what we are telling them.

“Our people really are trying to minimize the impact to the economic infrastructure.”

He also said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to review and revise its designation of critical habitat in the state, taking into consideration some of what the AAC’s report turned up, with a final rule expected later this year.

“I understand that landowners might not care about freshwater mussels,” added Davidson. “But it’s really about protecting the rivers so our society has access to clean water.”

Fisher Ford

In western Benton County, Arkansas, work has been underway this summer on the Fisher Ford Bridge. The old bridge, built in 1910, had been out of service for nearly a decade, requiring long drive times for area residents and slowing down emergency responders. It’s just one of a half dozen bridges being replaced in the county, said Bob Clinard, a Benton County judge. Each time the county begins work on a bridge, said Clinard, it is required to survey for all endangered species.

The entire survey for all species — mussels included — cost just under $30,000.

“The found eight mussels, three upstream of the bridge about 100 feet, and five downstream of the bridge about 150 feet,” he said.

The discovery of the Neosho mucket didn’t stop the bridge, but the survey delayed construction a couple of months, and meant that straightening out a small bend in the road at the approach to the bridge would have added costs, because it would have shifted the bridge into that mussel habitat and meant moving the mussels. County officials opted to leave the small bend in the road, with Clinard noting that it is still safe.

They also did a similar survey over Osage Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River, where work is also underway on a bridge — the bridge that the AAC said would cost $1.4 million if it was blocked.

Although the survey is relatively small given that the Fisher Ford bridge will cost $1 million, Clinard noted that there are 241 bridges in the county. It starts to add up.

“We’re blessed with a great economy here,” Clinard said, of Benton County. “We can afford all of this. But these small counties, it is really going to hurt them.”

“In no way,” Clinard said, “would I ever say we need to not protect a species if it is reasonable,’’ but he added: “ ... my job, is to try to spend the least amount of taxpayer money, or try to get the most for the taxpayer dollars.

“I don’t have anything against the mussel,” he added, “but I do know the cost to the taxpayer of trying to protect them.

“My question always has been with this,” Clinard said. “What is the purpose of the mussels?”

Eight gallons a day

Simmons, the biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Missouri said that is a question he can answer. 

Freshwater mussels, because they are sensitive to pollution and other changes to rivers, are early indicators of trouble. What’s more, they filter water, providing food for plant and animal communities, and stabilizing stream and riverbeds. A typical mussel can filter eight gallons of water per day. Some of what they filter out of the water they consume as food, the rest they bind up with a mucus that drops to the river bottom, where it becomes available as nutrients for plants.

But, Clinard noted, “Eight of them are not going to filter that river very much.”

But Simmons said up to 500 mussels can exist in a square meter of a river bottom and he doesn’t doubt that a healthy river would have enough mussels to filter much of its water.

But focusing on the usefulness of mussels, or any species, misses the point, said Barnhart.

“The Endangered Species Act is not based on their water filter function,” he said.  “To me, that’s a red herring, to sell mussels on what mussels do for people ... It’s about preserving the living world.”

The focus when people talk about endangered species is still too often on what he called the “minor annoyances that are placed in the path to try and save species that have been here for millions of years,” rather than on what’s being lost and preserving it for future generations, regardless of the role it plays.

“The Endangered Species Act was right,” he said. “The world is a better place for it.”

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