Gary Peeples and David Eisenhauer tell us about some high-definition conservation in Virginia and Tennessee.
|Searching for mussels in the South Toe River. Photo by Gary Peeples/USFWS
Casually wading the Clinch River in southwest Virginia, one can’t help but look down and notice mussel after mussel dotting the stream bottom. To the south, in Tennessee’s Citico River, tens of thousands of buffalo fish congregate each spring for spawning. And in the depths of the Tennessee River itself, lake sturgeon, a fish largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, ply the river depths.
When we think of river life, for many of us a handful of animals may come to mind – trout, smallmouth bass, muskie. But the southeastern United States is a hotbed of species diversity. On that landscape, the Upper Tennessee River Basin (UTRB), covering much of the southern Appalachians, stands out with a whopping 255 species of fish and mussels known from the basin.
People do not live apart from the UTRB ecosystem; they are connected to it, says Roberta Hylton of the Service’s Southwestern Virginia Field Office.
“Our local rivers and streams in the Upper Tennessee River Basin provide us with drinking water, fishing, swimming, boating, inspiration, and many other services and opportunities,” Hylton says. “The health and well-being of people living within the UTRB depend upon water quality, as reflected in the area’s aquatic biodiversity. Working to conserve aquatic biodiversity means we will also be working to protect water quality and the interests of citizens.”
Unfortunately, though the basin has an incredible diversity of stream life, a disappointing number of stream animals there are imperiled – the result of dams, water contamination and sedimentation. Of the 172 fish species historically known from the basin, 13 are on the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, as are 32 of the 83 historically known mussel species. That means 45 species are threatened or endangered in a river basin covering an area about the size of West Virginia.