Appalachian Crayfishes Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection

Crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution, making them indicators of water quality

Courtesy Article

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – In response to a petition and lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed to protect two species of crayfish from Appalachia under the Endangered Species Act. The crayfishes have been lost from more than half of their ranges because of water pollution, primarily from coal mining. The Big Sandy crayfish is known only from the Big Sandy River basin in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia; the Guyandotte River crayfish is known only from the Guyandotte River basin in southern West Virginia.

Big Sandy Crayfish Photo by Guenter Schuster
Big Sandy Crayfish
Photo by Guenter Schuster

“This listing proposal is historic because these are the first species to be proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act because of harm caused by mountaintop-removal coal mining,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center and a native of southeastern Kentucky. “For decades coal companies have gotten away with polluting Appalachia’s water and killing its species, but it is time for the Endangered Species Act to start being enforced in Appalachia.”

The Center and regional allies petitioned to protect the Big Sandy crayfish as an endangered species in 2010, and in 2012 the Center filed a lawsuit against the Service for failing to make a legally required decision on the petition. In response to that lawsuit, the Service was required to issue a finding in April 2015, leading to the recent listing proposal.

The Big Sandy crayfish has lost more than half of its range in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The newly discovered Guyandotte River crayfish, which was once thought to be the same as the Big Sandy crayfish but was recently discovered to be a new species, is now the most endangered crayfish in America, surviving only in a single county in West Virginia. Both crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution. The Big Sandy crayfish was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991.

The Big Sandy crayfish is known from Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties in Virginia, and from McDowell and Mingo counties in West Virginia. In Kentucky it is known from Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Pike and Martin counties. The Guyandotte River crayfish was known from Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties, West Virginia, but survives only in Wyoming County. In addition to coal mining, the crayfish are threatened by construction of the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway.

The listing proposal means that federal agencies will now have to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before funding or permitting any activity that could harm the animals. When the listing is finalized in 12 months, it will be illegal for any person or corporation, including coal companies, to harm the crayfishes or their habitat. The Service will propose critical habitat to protect the crayfishes in the near future.

Recent scientific studies have concluded that pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining is harmful to fish, crayfish, mussels, amphibians and stream insects in Appalachia. Pollution from mountaintop removal is also associated with increased risk of cancer and birth defects in humans. More than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been degraded by this mechanized form of mining, which employs far fewer people than other forms and perpetuates poverty by causing permanent and irreversible damage to the landscape.

“Coal mining has been destroying human and wildlife communities in Appalachia for more than 100 years,” said Curry. “By protecting streams for these crayfishes, we will also be protecting water quality for people in a region where public health has long been sacrificed to dirty coal.”
Coal field residents and allies are currently promoting the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or ACHE, a federal bill that would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until the federal government has completed and evaluated studies into health disparities in the region.

Crayfish are also known as crawdads, crawfish, mudbugs and freshwater lobsters. They’re considered to be a keystone animal because the holes they dig create habitat used by other species including fish. Crayfish keep streams cleaner by eating decaying plants and animals, and they are eaten, in turn, by fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, making them an important link in the food web. The Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution, making them indicator species of water quality.

In 2011 the Center for Biological Diversity entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite protection decisions for 757 imperiled species around the country. To date 142 species have gained protection under the agreement, and another 12 have been proposed for protection, including the two crayfishes.

Tierra Curry is the Senior Scientist and a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity where she works to gain protection for endangered species across the country. A large part of her work is trying to safeguard the salamanders, fish, crawdads and mussels in Appalachia. She will be speaking at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia conference in Charleston.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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