Strategic Habitat Conservation in the Mobile River Basin
The stream drainages of Alabama and adjoining states comprise the most extraordinarily diverse aquatic ecosystem of North America. These drainages support a large and significant proportion of the native aquatic snail, mussel, crayfish, and fish biodiversity of North America, many of which are endemic to the region. Human development and modification during the past century has resulted in the extinction of 69 of these aquatic species, primarily aquatic snails and mussels, along with an equal number currently listed as threatened or endangered with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
A host of additional aquatic species are considered candidates for listing or as species of concern. Habitats for these animals have been converted from free-flowing rivers and streams, to scattered isolated reaches that function as refuges of rare and endemic biodiversity. Maintaining the remnants of this unique legacy will require human stewardship and intervention into the foreseeable future. A Strategic Habitat Conservation Plan for Mollusks of the Mobile River Basin is under development with multiple partners to facilitate a long-term management commitment to preserve biodiversity in the Mobile River Basin.
Several partnerships exist between federal and state agencies and private industries. These partners help complete watershed assessments, identify recovery objectives, and exchange information at local, county, state, and federal levels. The following examples demonstrate the level of partnerships and valuable work completed to date.
- Federal and state biologists work cooperatively to conduct surveys and population assessments.
- Partners have recently completed a Reintroduction and Augmentation Plan for Imperiled Mollusks of the Mobile River Basin.
- The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) is nearing the completion of a state-of-the-art hatchery facility (Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center - AABC) dedicated to culturing and developing husbandry techniques for imperiled aquatic fauna.
- The Geological Survey of Alabama recently published a GIS-based spatial analysis that identifies the 26 highest priority restoration units (i.e., Strategic Habitat Units - SHUs) in the Mobile River Basin. Individual analyses are currently being conducted on each of the 26 SHU’s.
- Through the FERC re-licensing process, the Alabama Power Company has committed more than $7.5 million over the term of their hydro licenses on the Coosa River Dams. These funds will go directly towards instream habitat improvements and the AABC. They have committed to improving water quality conditions below dams by implementing either continuous minimum flows or other water quality improvements.
- The Corps of Engineers has begun utilizing navigation locks with the sole intent of moving fishes upstream and downstream at two dams on the Alabama River.
- The Alabama Clean Water Partnership and Alabama Department of Environmental Management work with local and county agencies to disseminate information and to develop basin water quality plans.
- The Mobile River Basin Coalition is another important partnership that has been formed between industry, local, state, county, and federal groups with an interest in preserving and protecting the Mobile River Basin. The Coalition holds periodic meetings to allow stakeholders an opportunity to present and discuss basin recovery priorities.
- Several organizations, including the Cahaba River Society, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Alabama Rivers Alliance have developed publications and used the local media to highlight biodiversity, challenges, and environmental management in their outreach. One of the highlights of this effort was the removal of an old dam on the Cahaba River a few years ago.
The guiding document for the Mobile SHC is the Reintroduction and Augmentation Plan. Within this document a three-tiered hierarchy of the most imperiled species has been developed. The plan also includes generalized population goals, as indicated in the recovery plan for the listed species, and the best locations to re-establish populations. There also are propagation procedures, reintroduction forms, research needs, and other means of accountability for researchers and stakeholders working to preserve these imperiled species.
Conservation design in the basin centers on the identification of 26 stream reaches within the basin which are critical habitat for a group of mussel species. These stream reaches support more than 90 percent of the endemic aquatic fauna of the basin, and have been identified as priority areas for program delivery for conservation of imperiled fauna.
Program delivery is focused on the successful management of the Basin’s aquatic biodiversity. The first step is establishing baseline conditions in the priority areas (i.e., SHU’s), and identifying, quantifying, and mapping land uses, water quality, diversity, and locations and condition of priority species populations. Once this information is available, a GIS system can be developed for tracking and disseminating watershed conditions for all of the priority watersheds. This system will allow the development of husbandry techniques for priority species including establishing captive populations for species imminently threatened with extinction. Areas can be identified that are historically occupied by the priority species where they may be successfully reintroduced.
Monitoring priority watershed conditions will allow immediate responses to improving conditions as well as to threats through augmenting, reintroducing, or relocating priority species populations and establishing ARK populations to prevent extinction. Monitoring will also allow us to work effectively with state and other partners addressing threats through existing regulations. By developing strong working relationships with partners the Service looks forward to encouraging voluntary stewardship and conservation of these imperiled species.
The success of the Mobile River Basin SHC program depends solely on committed partnerships and a stable source of dedicated funding. The Service and its partners continue to build upon the successes of completed projects, ensuring the continued conservation of the ecosystem upon which these species depend.
Submitted by Jeff Powell, Ecological Services, Daphne, Alabama, and Paul Hartfield, Ecological Services, Jackson, Mississippi