Thursday, June 14, 2007

Meet the Endangered Elktoe

“When the water and mud came down, it looked like there was a four-foot wave..It sounded like someone was scraping the road, and that’s what we thought it was at first.” - Marilyn Mull, quoted in the Sylva Herald

In the latest news coverage on the dam break at the Balsam Mountain Preserve golf course, we read of concerns over the impact on the endangered elktoe mussel.

Break in Dam Threatens Mussel is the headline in today’s Asheville Citizen-Times.
From the article:

Biologist Mark Cantrell [US Fish and Wildlife Service] said the sediment that flowed into the river as a result of the dam break could affect the reproduction of the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel. “This event, this dam break and the resulting discharge, occurred at the worst time possible for the Appalachian elktoe,” Cantrell said….The mollusk had just completed its spawning and was releasing its young larvae into the water when the dam break occurred,…

In this week’s Sylva Herald story, Golf Course Dam Failure Sends Mud Rushing Downstream, included another statement from Cantrell:

“The effects of the massive dump of sediment and debris is especially bad since we are in a drought and water levels in our streams are extremely low. The Fish and Wildlife Service is quite concerned about how the sediment introduced by the dam break has impacted habitat of fish and wildlife resources. The sediment has been deposited in important aquatic habitats for young fish, mussels, and other invertebrates that are unable to move out of its way. We are especially concerned about what the effects are on the endangered Appalachian Elktoe Mussel and its habitat in the Tuckaseigee River.”

In 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the elktoe mussel an endangered species. The Tuckasegee River has been one of the few remaining homes for the elktoe. From another FWS publication describing the elktoe in detail:

The Appalachian elktoe has a thin, kidney-shaped shell, reaching up to about 10 centimeters (4 inches)… The species is most often found in riffles, runs, and shallow flowing pools with stable, relatively silt-free, coarse sand and gravel substrate associated with cobble, boulders, and/or bedrock. Stability of the substrate appears to be critical to the Appalachian elktoe, and the species is seldom found in stream reaches with accumulations of silt or shifting sand, gravel, or cobble. …Activities such as impoundments, channelization projects, and in-stream dredging operations eliminate mussel habitat. These activities can also alter the quality and stability of the remaining stream reaches by affecting the flow regimes, water velocities, and water temperature and chemistry.

Just last November, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission reported the results of a study that indicated a sudden and extreme drop in the elktoe population on the Little Tennessee:

“It really is a sad situation,” said John Fridell, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist who listed the mussel as endangered in 1994. “The Appalachian elktoe had been making strides across the region, then Frances and Ivan struck, which negated some of those gains. Now we see this degree of a decline in what only a few years ago was the healthiest, most numerous population.”

Back on December 20, 2006 we mentioned the endangered elktoe in a blog post on the difficulties facing wildlife at Biltmore Lake development in Buncombe County, Inconvenience as a Capital Offense. I’ll give the last word to someone whose statement appeared in that post:

“Western North Carolina is being developed to death.”

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