Fish and Wildlife Protects Appalachian Crayfish Habitat

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — To protect two rare species of crayfish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 446 miles of Appalachian waterways as critical habitat, which could lead to further review of coal mining permits in the watershed.


What do you want to know

  • The designation stems from the 2018 lawsuit
  • Number of protected species down 60%
  • The waterways are in the coal producing regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia
  • Distinction ensures greater scrutiny when applying for new mining permits

In mid-March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially designated 446 miles of streams and rivers as critical habitat for two species of crayfish, the threatened Big Sandy crayfish and the endangered Guyandotte river crayfish. , which has lost more than 90% of its range. and is now found in just two streams in Wyoming County, West Virginia.

Although it’s already illegal to harm crayfish, the critical habitat designation adds a layer of protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. The designation requires any federally funded or authorized project to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure that a crayfish habitat is not damaged. The decision follows a petition and lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Sierra Club.

The threatened range of the Big Sandy crayfish has been reduced by more than 60% and it is found in the upper Big Sandy watershed in the coal producing areas of southern West Virginia, Southwest of Virginia and eastern Kentucky. All but one of Kentucky’s designated critical habitats are in Pike County and include the Russell Fork River, Elkhorn Creek, Levisa Fork, Shelby Creek, Long Fork, Tug Fork River, Knox Creek, Peter Creek, and Blackberry Creek. The section of the Tug Fork River separating Martin County, Ky., and Wayne County, West Virginia is also designated critical habitat.

“The list has several different meanings,” said Perrin de Jong, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “When critical habitat is designated, you cannot negatively alter that habitat. The other importance is consultation: whenever a federal agency funds or authorizes an activity, whether it has a say in an upcoming project or not, it must work with Fish and Wildlife to ensure that activities it approves do not compromise protected species or adversely alter critical habitat.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) and state mining agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW) to ensure that new mining permits contain terms and conditions to avoid harm to the habitat.

“These unique crayfish exist nowhere else in the world and would soon be snuffed out by destructive coal mining without these essential protections,” de Jong said. “But it’s not charity, since our fate is linked to the fate of the crayfish. The clean water they need to survive is the same that local residents rely on for drinking and recreation.

OSMRE and the FWS should also reopen the consultation process for existing mines in view of the new designation, de Jong said.

“Apparently, such consultation could lead to a determination of danger, particularly in the case of the Guyandotte river crayfish,” de Jong said. “These crayfish are currently found in only two creeks in Wyoming County, West Virginia. Can the service seriously say that all other habitat can be sacrificed? »

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, sedimentation from surface coal mines often flows downstream, choking waterways and killing crayfish or negatively affecting their reproduction.

De Jong said he does not expect agencies to undertake this consultation uninvited.

“The designation opens up opportunities for citizen groups to challenge those views,” he said. “It creates a lot more transparency and control, and gives us tools to engage and prevent risk. It’s something we’ll have to fight for every square inch to make sure it results in more scrutiny. .

Crayfish are also known as crayfish, crayfish, mudbugs, and freshwater lobsters. Crayfish keep waterways cleaner by eating decaying plants and animals. They are eaten by fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, making them an important link in the food web.

In an agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, Fish and Wildlife protected both species under the Endangered Species Act in 2016 due to habitat loss and water pollution, in due to mountain top removal and other forms of coal mining.

“From the beginning, coal mining has destroyed the planet for wildlife and people,” de Jong said. “They don’t just wipe out wildlife and destabilize the climate, they also destroy air and water quality for local residents.”

The Center for Biological Diversity alleged in a 2018 lawsuit that the species was damaged by sediment from coal mining operations that disturbed their riverine habitat. The lawsuit said the Fish and Wildlife Service was not moving quickly enough to designate habitat areas.

The designation does not establish an official conservation area or set aside land or affect land ownership, according to the rule.

The designations have been effective since April 14, 2022.

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