Environmental group sues to protect species of mussel found in Virginia

By: - June 16, 2022 1:50 pm

On Tuesday, the national environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in an Oregon federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to determine or finalize protections for four species of mussel, including the pictured longsolid mussel, that have faced steep losses over the past decades.  (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Federal courts will again put a species of freshwater mussel native to Southwest Virginia under the microscope. 

On Tuesday, the national environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in an Oregon federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its failure to determine or finalize protections for four species that have faced steep losses over the past decades. 

Among the four is the longsolid (Fusconaia subrotunda), a light brown freshwater mussel historically found from Alabama to Pennsylvania and once used in the making of buttons. Today, populations in Georgia, Indiana and Illinois have been wiped out, and “precipitous declines and extirpations” of populations have been observed in river basins throughout its remaining range. 

In Virginia, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified remaining populations in portions of the Clinch and Powell Rivers as well as Indian Creek. Populations that once lived in the South Fork Holston River in Virginia and Tennessee have been eradicated. 

Tim Lane, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ Southwest Virginia mussel recovery coordinator, said the species is very abundant in the Tennessee portion of the Clinch and Indian Creek in Lee County, where he’s found it “countless times.”

“They are more of a midriver to large river mussel,” he wrote in an email. “So they show up in tributaries but infrequently.”

Scientists have identified a range of threats to the species, including mining and resource extraction activities that have polluted water bodies like the Clinch and Powell. 

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity was among a group of organizations that petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the longsolid and 403 other species in the southeastern U.S. as endangered or threatened. 

Freshwater mussels collected during a scientific sampling event on the Clinch River in Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

In 2020, the agency proposed listing the species as threatened and designating 1,115 river miles through six states including Virginia as critical habitat. However, Fish and Wildlife has never issued a final rule officially declaring the longsolid to be threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

“The Endangered Species Act is tremendously effective at saving species from extinction,” said Camila Cossío, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “But it only works if the service actually grants species protection.” 

The case isn’t the first time federal courts have been charged with examining the plight of a freshwater mussel native to the region. 

Following another 2020 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Fish and Wildlife last November listed the Atlantic pigtoe mussel found in Virginia and North Carolina as threatened and designated 563 miles of river as critical habitat. And in 2019, a freshwater mussel known as the clubshell found just over Virginia’s border in West Virginia and Tennessee was central to a federal court’s decision to overturn a key permit for the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline

While less celebrated than oysters, freshwater mussels play a critical role in filtering rivers and streams, and Virginia has historically been home to an unusual diversity of species, counting roughly 80 within its waterways.

But in recent decades, populations have been vanishing: Department of Wildlife Resources officials estimate only 30 percent of the state’s freshwater mussel species are stable, and 31 species in the state’s portion of the Tennessee River system have been designated by either the state or federal government as endangered or threatened. 

After lobbying by conservation groups, the General Assembly this year agreed to put $400,000 over the next two years toward the development and administration of a statewide plan to protect and restore native freshwater mussel species. The budget, which was passed by the legislature June 1, is currently under review by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]