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More freshwater mussels under federal protection

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Two more species of freshwater mussels - reported in the Duck River at and/or near Milltown - have been listed by the federal government as protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The two mussels - the rayed bean and snuffbox - are found in river systems in the eastern United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Protection of the mussels means it is illegal to harm them in any way, or to remove them from their habitat.

Shellfish in the Duck River have played various roles in South Central Tennessee. Although there's a conflicting version of the events, protection of two species is widely believed to have stopped construction of a dam at Columbia. And, 56 mussels were moved from the Duck River in the summer of 2007 before the Tennessee Department of Transportation started to widen an Interstate 65 bridge over the river. New support columns were required for more shoulder space so the bridge would accommodate wide load trucks, TDOT said.

"According to our records, both rayed bean and snuffbox are historically known from several locations throughout the Duck River between Normandy Dam and the mouth of the Duck River, including the Marshall County area" at Milltown, says Peggy W. Shute, deputy field supervisor for the USFWS' Tennessee Field Office in Cookeville.

"There have been few recent records (in the last 40-50 years) of either species in the Duck River, however, the rayed bean was reintroduced in the Marshall County area in 2008," Shute said. "It's really too soon to tell if this reintroduction has been successful, though."

Threats to both the rayed bean and the snuffbox include loss and degradation of stream and river habitat due to flooding from dams, channelization, chemical contaminants, mining and sedimentation. Freshwater mussels need clean water. Their decline often signals a loss of water quality.

The USFWS and other groups are developing recovery plans for the mussels to conserve their habitat, the agency said last week.

Federal protection for the rayed bean and the snuffbox mussels was preceded by protection for the birdwing pearlymussel. Beacham's Guide to Endangered Species says the pearlymussel is abundant in the Duck but limited to a 40-mile stretch between Lillard Mill Dam and where the Columbia Dam was being built. The population there has been estimated at about 25,000. Major water control projects flood upstream valleys, reduce downstream flows, alter temperature gradients, cause extreme water level fluctuations, increase turbidity and silting, and create seasonal oxygen deficits. These factors can eliminate mussels that are fixed to a single locality. The Columbia Dam on the Duck River was at one time a threat to the pearlymussel.

Murfreesboro-based attorney Frank Fly has specialized in environmental law for decades. He was among environmentalists resisting construction of the Columbia Dam. Fly emphasizes that mussels weren't why dam construction was stopped. It was the dam's cost-to-benefit ratio, he said.

Snail Darter fish weren't the problem for the Columbia Dam, as is widely believed. That species was the issue for an East Tennessee dam.

Fly was asked Friday to comment on federal protection for two more mussels.

"Lillard Mill, downstream from Henry Horton State Park, is a section of the Duck with the highest concentration of endangered mussels," Fly said, after first noting, "The National Geographic magazine of February 2010 identified the Duck River as having the greatest diversity of freshwater aquatic species of any stream in the entire world.

"It's a world resource," Fly said.

He knows about it professionally and first hand. He participates in an annual float down the river. Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association members and guests gather at the HHSP Restaurant on the first Saturday of June for the social event for friends of the river.

The demise of TVA's reservoir project and dam at Columbia is widely believed to be a result of litigation led by Fly in federal court to stop and reverse construction of the dam to protect a snail darter fish and/or a shellfish. Fly says that's not true.

"We never filed any case or pleading based on endangered species," Fly said. "Ronald Reagan appointed David Stockton as his budget director and Stockton was told to find ways to cut the federal budget."

Cost-benefit ratios for the Columbia Dam were calculated in 1934,1952 and 1968, he said, pointing to an aspect of the federally required Environmental Impact Statement.

"It wasn't economically justified," Fly said of TVA's proposed dam. "David Stockton agreed with that and Reagan agreed and he cut it from the budget. Ronald Reagan is my hero."

By 2000, demolition of the TVA's Columbia dam had begun.

"After extensive studies, TVA announced in 1995 that the controversial dam and reservoir project would not be completed due to environmental and financial issues," according to a report by Reggie Reeves published by the Tennessee Conservationist, a magazine published by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Reeves is now retired.

"In 1977, the TVA and the USFWS determined that completing the dam would jeopardize two endangered mussel species found in the Duck River," the TDEC magazine reported in late 2001. "The nearly completed dam ... was later demolished."

Now, some 35 years after an environmental determination regarding the pearlymussel in the Duck River, the rayed bean is also found in rivers in Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The snuffbox is found in those states and Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In its final rule listing the two species under the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS pointed to their population declines. The rayed bean has been eliminated from 73 percent of its historical range. The snuffbox has disappeared from 62 percent of the streams in which it was historically found. The final rule appeared Feb. 14 in the Federal Register, the U.S. government's journal for agencies' public notices.

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), endangered means a species is in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range. It is illegal under the ESA to kill, harm or otherwise take a listed species, or to posses, import, export or conduct interstate or international commerce without authorization from the Service. The ESA also requires all federal agencies to ensure actions they authorize, fund, or undertake do not jeopardize the existence of listed species.