Livers of the Rivers: Stakeholder Collaboration Aims to Benefit Freshwater Mussels
Freshwater mussels may lack charisma, as they look like nothing more than rocks. But that belies the natural wonders of their life-history and their incredibly important role in the ecology of streams and the people and economies that rely on the same water. Thanks to inclusion of stakeholders and voluntary conservation opportunities, work getting underway in Texas holds promise for mussels in most need, including four Central Texas freshwater mussel species considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): the false spike, Texas fatmucket, Texas fawnsfoot, and the Texas pimpleback.
On February 7, 2017, more than 100 stakeholders gathered in Austin, Texas, to hear from top State and Federal officials about research focused on these freshwater mussel species. Glenn Hegar, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, recently awarded $2.3 million dollars to advance the scientific understanding of these mussel species given that many are concerned that the conservation actions for mussels in water scarce central Texas have the potential to impact the Texas economy, especially during times of drought. These four species are unique to the Brazos, Colorado and Guadalupe River basins and lie in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) - Southwest Region’s East Texas-East Oklahoma Emphasis Area. These areas provide habitat for freshwater mussels that are found nowhere else in the world.
Photo: Gary Pandolfi, USFWS
Mussels everywhere face similar threats: habitat loss from land use changes, forest cover removal with subsequent sedimentation and impoundments. The false spike, Texas fatmucket, Texas fawnsfoot, and the Texas pimpleback are no different. They require clean, reliable flowing water over a stable stream bottom. Consequently, impoundments hurt mussel populations by limiting their ranges and their ability to survive in these waterways.
Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, former Region 2 Regional Director and current Assistant Director for Science Applications, spoke at the gathering in Austin. He applauded the State’s mussel research program and a stakeholder process to be led by the Comptroller’s office that affords the opportunity to voluntarily conserve mussels and their habitats. The reasons these voluntary stakeholder programs can be successful are that they provide an opportunity for stakeholders to help conserve species before a listing occurs, which provides regulatory assurances for stakeholders and also may result in a species not being listed. Dr. Tuggle highlighted two examples of prior success: In West Texas, stakeholders implemented a conservation plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard that kept it off the endangered species list. Secondly, the City of Georgetown, Texas, passed an ordinance to protect water quality for the Georgetown salamander that ultimately led to its listing as a threatened species rather than endangered. In other words, when the people affected by listings are included in the process, they have the opportunity to prevent listing though voluntary conservation measures that benefits the species’ status.
Texas waters are the life blood for the Texas economy and provide water for municipal, agricultural, industrial, recreation, and conservation purposes. They also provide habitat for more than 50 of the 300 known species of freshwater mussels that inhabit North America. The Service recognizes the need for stakeholder input. “We view this process as an opportunity to have discussions about the science needs and the voluntary conservation activities that can sustain and improve water quality and aquatic habitats upon which mussels depend,” says Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, Southwest Regional Director.
“There is real, palpable positive energy surrounding this effort,” says Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar. “Having grown up on land my family has farmed for six generations, I understand the importance of both protecting our natural resources and providing sustainable economic opportunity for our children and grandchildren. After meeting with stakeholders and visiting with Dr. Tuggle, I am confident that we can find collaborative solutions that strike that balance.”
The Service is excited to be part of the collaborative stakeholder effort being led by the Comptroller’s office and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The stakeholders are now meeting monthly to discuss scientific research and voluntary conservation actions, such as habitat restoration, flow management, and water quality needs for the species. Many of these actions improve the health for not only mussels, but health of Texas Rivers for people. These voluntary actions, research, and a possible adaptive management program all serve to benefit the species’ status that will be included in the Service’s Species Status Assessment (SSA). The SSA is the scientific assessment of the species future viability that will help inform an ESA listing decision (see the figure above). The stakeholder and SSA process is allowing stakeholders to get ahead of potential species listings.
Texas is setting the stage for innovative stakeholder collaborative processes to mussel conservation. It is our hope this will serve as a proactive collaborative model for others to conserve our “livers of the rivers.”