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A new culvert under a bridge allows water to flow freely rather than through narrow channels.
Information icon Downstream view of the Gills Creek Drive road crossing after culvert replacement. Photo, Morgan Wolf, USFWS

Against all odds: return of the Gills Creek ecosystem

If you had asked recovery biologists 10 years ago to list the best places to return mussels to the wild, Gills Creek would have been at the very bottom of that list. The small South Carolina stream had been through a lot. Too much, it seemed, to recover. Situated just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, and east of Lancaster, South Carolina, the watershed had seen the advance of suburban sprawl, and was battling ongoing agricultural degradation.

However, a couple of things were in its favor. Gills Creek was federally designated as critical habitat for the endangered Carolina heelsplitter in 2002, and the species was miraculously found there as late as 2013. These factors led a multi-agency team to begin emergency restoration efforts. Over the past five years, three road crossings have been replaced by the Southeast’s Aquatic Habitat Restoration Team, opening up miles of critical habitat to fish passage for the first time in over a decade. The final replacement came in 2017, as well as the first augmentation of Carolina heelsplitters, using mussels produced at Orangeburg National Fish Hatchery.

Four corrugated metal pipes allow water to trickle under a bridge into a pile of rocks
Downstream view of the Gills Creek Drive road crossing before replacement in July of 2017. Photo, Morgan Wolf, USFWS.

Recent survey efforts indicate these heelsplitters are still present in the system after two years. They are also growing quickly, putting on about a millimeter of shell growth per month, and nearly doubling in size. Against all odds, Gills Creek is healing, building its capacity to support an endangered mussel species. It is no longer at the bottom of any list.

A dark colored mussel with a orange identification tag that reads: A501
A recaptured, hatchery-raised Carolina heelsplitter, showing shell growth ‘rings’. September 2019. Photo, Morgan Kern, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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