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Central Texas mussels could be protected under Endangered Species Act

Texas pimpleback mussel

Habitat destruction and poor water quality are threatening six native Central Texas freshwater mussels, including several species found in the Llano, Pedernales, and Colorado rivers. The photo is of a Texas pimpleback mussel. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Six Central Texas freshwater species soon could be listed under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Critical habitat for each of the six also could be designated as protected. The service proposed listing the Texas pimpleback, Guadalupe orb, Texas fatmucket, Guadalupe fatmucket, and false spike as endangered. The Texas fawnsfoot could be listed as threatened.

“Mussels in Central Texas are struggling as declining water quality and quantity impact their ability to survive,” said Amy Lueders, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “When mussel populations are at risk, it suggests other fish and wildlife species, and people, too, are at risk. Our efforts to protect the six Central Texas species will ultimately result in healthier rivers and streams and will benefit communities and industries that depend upon them for drinking water, recreation, and other uses in one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, “endangered” is defined as a species that “is currently in danger of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A “threatened” species is one that “is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.”

The six proposed freshwater mussel species were once abundant throughout the Brazos, Colorado, Guadalupe, and Trinity river basins. 

The Texas pimpleback’s range includes portions of the Colorado River basin as well as the Llano, San Saba, and Pedernales rivers. Research by Fish and Wildlife Service officials found little evidence of reproduction in all but one population. Officials also reported that at least one population of the species was completely wiped out following a recent drought.

The Texas fatmucket also is found in the Colorado River basin, including the San Saba, Llano, James, Pedernales, North Llano, and South Llano rivers. And the false spike was once thought to have been extinct but was rediscovered in 2011. It is found in the Llano and San Saba rivers. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, all populations of this species “are small and isolated, and most populations are subject to declining (water) flows.”

The Texas fawnsfoot is found in the Brazos, Trinity, and Colorado river basins. The Colorado River basin also includes the San Saba River. The San Gabriel River, which has branches in eastern Burnet County, is part of the Brazos River basin.

The Guadalupe fatmucket and Guadalupe orb are found in portions of the Guadalupe River basin. 

Along with the endangered and threatened designations, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes critical habitat designations for about 1,900 river miles. This designation identifies areas that are particularly important to the species.

“It does not mean activities cannot occur in the area, only that federal agencies must consult with the (service) if they are conducting, funding, or permitting activities that may adversely affect the species or their habitat,” according to Fish and Wildlife Service officials. “Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve and has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to protect the six species under the Endangered Species Act isn’t its first step. The service has worked alongside a number of federal, state, and local partners and private landowners over the years in an effort to restore and enhance habitats that benefit the six species.

The Texas State Comptroller’s Office funded research into captive propagation of Central Texas mussels. Some of the research is taking place at Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery in Hoover’s Valley.

Hatchery staff are trying to find a way to cultivate several freshwater species — Texas fatmucket, Texas pimpleback, and Texas smooth pimpleback — in a controlled setting. Unlike with fish, not much data is available about raising mussels.

Native mussels play an important role in the ecosystem as they filter water and serve as a food source for fish and wildlife. Service officials pointed out that mussels are a good indicator of the overall health of a river or stream.

As the proposal process moves forward, the Fish and Wildlife Service is requesting comments from the public, government agencies, the scientific community, industries, and other interested parties. 

People can submit comments through Oct. 25. 

Comments can be made online. Enter FWS-R2-ES-2019-0061 starting Thursday, Aug. 26. Under Document Type heading, select Proposed Rule.

The service also accepts written comments, which can be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn. FWS-R2-ES-2019-0061, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS-BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is holding a virtual informational meeting followed by a public hearing starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14, and again Thursday, Sept. 16. Registration is available at the links provided.

The complete proposed rule is available online.