NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday proposed protecting a species of Southeastern freshwater mussel under the Endangered Species Act, a move that reflects the threat of pollution and climate change to freshwater mussels overall.
Yellowish in color and shaped somewhat like a pig's toe, the Atlantic pigtoe is native to states in the southeastern U.S. that range from Virginia to Georgia. But the species appears to have dwindled to seven populations in North Carolina and Virginia. It's could be at risk of extinction in 50 years, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife documents.
Mussels help to support the ecosystems of rivers by filtering water. But Atlantic pigtoe need to live in clean and flowing waterways. Runoff from development and farms has muddied or polluted the rivers and creeks in which they live.
Climate change also has worsened the droughts and storms that can disrupt their habitats. Rising water temperatures also threaten young mussels.
"Most of the remaining populations are small and fragmented, only occupying a fraction of reaches that were historically occupied," U.S. Fish & Wildlife stated in a filing.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, said it sued the federal government to protect the Atlantic pigtoe. The group said freshwater mussels in general are "the most endangered group of organisms in the United States."
The center claims that 35 species have already been declared extinct and that its work has led to federal protection for 21 kinds of mussels, while more are under review.
"In the biggest picture, the fate of freshwater mussels is tied to the fate of humans because both depend on clean water," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center. "Everything we can do to help them will help us in the long run."
U.S. Fish & Wildlife has proposed listing the Atlantic pigtoe as "threatened" and would designate more than 500 miles of rivers in two states as critical habitat. River basins would include those of the James and Roanoke rivers as well as the Tar and Cape Fear rivers.