Feds Look to Add Rare Salamander Mussel to Endangered Species List

On Monday, August 21, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced a proposal to lend federal protections to a small freshwater bivalve known as the salamander mussel. According to the USFWS, the thin-shelled mollusk is severely threatened across its 14-state habitat range, which encompasses some 2,000 miles of creeks and rivers from New York to southwest Arkansas.

“Our species status report includes the best scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the salamander mussel, including the impacts of past, present and future factors affecting the species,” reads a recent press release from USFWS. “Based on the report and other information, we determined that the species faces extinction and meets the definition of endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).”

That “species status assessment” found that, of the 66 known populations of salamander mussels in the United States, more than 80 percent are at “high risk” from existing environmental threats, while 14 percent face moderate risks. Those threats include such factors as water contamination, changes in water flow, landscape alteration, invasive species, and risks to the salamander mussel’s host species, the mudpuppy salamander, the agency said.

Mark Taylor is the Eastern Communications Director for Trout Unlimited (TU). He tells Field & Stream that TU always prioritizes the needs of native species, like the salamander mussel, when advocating on behalf of trout populations. “We’re all about native species and the preservation of native species,” says Taylor. “If this is deemed critical habitat for an endangered species, there probably will be additional regulatory hoops to jump through. But we’ll do whatever we have to do to work with Fish & Wildlife on any ESA designations.”

Taylor pointed to an existing endangered species in his home state of Virginia as an example of what an ESA designation can mean for brown trout management. “In Virginia, the ESA listing for the Roanoke log perch helps shape the trout management protocols of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources,” he says. “They’re not stocking predatory brown trout, for example, in watersheds that have those endangered fish.”

It’s too early to know if the USFWS’s proposed ESA designation for the salamander mussel could have similar implications. But many state wildlife agencies routinely stock brown, rainbow, and other trout species throughout the imperiled mussel’s 14-state home range.

In its press release, the USFWS said it has identified approximately 2,012 miles of swift-running rivers and streams as “critical habitat” for the salamander mussel. If those waterways do receive the critical habitat designation via the ESA, it could add another layer of complexity to the permitting process that conservation organizations like TU must undergo before preforming important habitat restoration projects—like stabilizing stream bank erosion or replacing undersized culverts that impede the movement of trout and other aquatic fish species through a stream or river. “We’re used to jumping through those extra regulatory hurdles,” adds Taylor. “We do that all the time on streams that have endangered species living in them. It’s not anything that we’re not equipped to handle.”

Related: Invasive Smallmouth Bass Threaten Trout on Montana’s Famous Bitterroot River

According to USFWS, salamander mussels are a canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality and river pollution. “Freshwater mussels are considered ‘silent sentinels’ of rivers and streams. Where mussels thrive, water quality tends to be good. Where mussels are declining, it’s an indication that rivers and streams they inhabit may be unhealthy,” the agency wrote. “In addition to being indicators of stream health, mussels can keep the water clean by filtering their food from the water, and with it, sediment and other pollutants.”

The USFWS will be fielding comments about the proposal over the next 60 days and will make its ultimate determination after an October 23 deadline. If you’d like to comment, you can do so here.