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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Service and Partners Focus Strategy in the the Upper Tennessee River Basin

Gary Peeples and David Eisenhauer tell us about some high-definition conservation in Virginia and Tennessee. 

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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. 

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The Service’s John Fridell and Ida Evretjarn during a mussel survey of the Little Tennessee River. Photo by Gary Peeples/USFWS

Megan Bradley of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center says the aquatic species of the UTRB are beset from all sides. Populations have declined for many reasons: historic impacts such as dam construction, pollution and development; aquatic habitat has been significantly changed and suitable habitat for many species is now patchy at best; populations have become more disconnected; and water chemistry has changed. If a species continues to persist in the UTRB, Bradley says, it is at continual risk of a catastrophic event wiping out an entire population. 

“These are varied challenges yet have roots in the same garden; the failure of human empathy for our neighbors and nature,” she says. “The history of the region offers a telling story, with poverty punctuated by short bursts of resource development, followed by more poverty. This is a land of people who still understand the value of the resources around them because they depend on [those resources] for survival.”

For years, the Service and its partners have worked cooperatively to recover these rare animals and to conserve supporting habitats, employing a variety of strategies. Some efforts have been successful, while others have fallen short. In looking at how best to move forward, the Service decided to consider where and how it could use its limited resources to have the greatest impact on these rare animals. The result is the Imperiled Aquatic Species Conservation Strategy for the Upper Tennessee River Basin – a flexible tool to help Service biologists and managers decide where to focus their efforts and identify opportunities in coordination with partners. 

Hylton, who helped develop the strategy with a team of Service scientists and managers, says that while both habitat and population management play key roles, the Service found that increasing emphasis on population management, with activities such as protecting and augmenting existing populations and establishing new populations, will help recover species more effectively and efficiently. Taking it another step, the plan also prioritizes both species and locations within the basin where the Service should focus both habitat and population management activities. 

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To maximize recovery efforts in an efficient and cost-effective manner, emphasis will be on implementing population management activities for high-priority species in high-priority streams.  Habitat management activities will be included as part of the approach 

To imagine how this might work, consider the collection of globally rare freshwater mussels that reside in the rivers of the basin. Mussels help filter and clean river water, which make them important to people. Unfortunately, there are many stretches of river where mussels survive in very low numbers or have been extirpated due to past water quality problems that may have since been corrected. By focusing partner resources and collaborating on mussel propagation and augmentation programs, says Brad Kreps, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, partners can restore and expand mussel populations across the river system. Partners also can continue to address water quality problems and habitat issues wherever concerns still exist. 

“This focused strategy, coupled with continued efforts to improve water quality, will have a cascading set of benefits that will make the river ecosystems healthier, more resilient, and more productive," Kreps says. “This will be a huge win for people and wildlife.”

Hylton says the strategy outlines specific ways the Service hopes to bring partners together to discuss needed conservation actions and ensure the strategy can be adapted to consider new information and conservation goals. Each year, Service offices working in the river basin will work with partners to review past on-the-ground projects and look ahead to future projects. The strategy, considered a working document, will be reevaluated at least every four years or sooner if needed. 

Architects of the strategy and supporting partners recognize that conservation doesn’t just benefit fish and wildlife; it benefits people, too. To that end, they insist it is imperative that the Service work cooperatively with a spectrum of federal, state,and non-governmental partners, as well as industry. 

But perhaps the most important partner in this effort are the people who live in the UTRB and rely on its resources.

“For conservation to be effective in the Upper Tennessee River Basin, as elsewhere, it must be initiated and passionately supported by local people of many stripes over the long term,” says Paul Angermeier, assistant leader for Virginia’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “Conservation can be informed by scientists and enforced by governments, but without strong, enduring public support and insistence, it can’t succeed.” 

Well more than 90 percent of the land base in the area is under private ownership, and conservation does not happen without landowners.

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