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A brown mussel in a sandy river bottom
Information icon Suwannee moccasinshell in its natural habitat. Photo by FWC.

Suwannee moccasinshell Critical Habitat

What action is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking?

The Service is proposing to designate critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

What is the range of the Suwannee moccasinshell?

The Suwannee moccasinshell, a small freshwater mussel, was historically present throughout much of the Suwannee River Basin; including the Suwannee River main stem in Florida, Santa River sub-basin in Florida, and the Withlacoochee River in Florida and Georgia. The current range of the Suwannee moccasinshell now only includes the middle Suwannee River and the lower Santa Fe River. Recent surveys targeting the species indicate it has declined in abundance and range, and that it may be extirpated from the Withlacoochee River and upper Santa Fe River sub-basin.

What areas are proposed for critical habitat designation for the Suwannee moccasinshell?

The Service is proposing to designate critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell in three separate units across approximately 190 miles of stream channel in Alachua, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee, and Union Counties in Florida; and in Brooks and Lowndes Counties in Georgia. Land ownership adjacent to the critical habitat area consists of private (72 percent), state (27 percent), and county (1 percent). No terrestrial lands are included in the proposed designation, only stream channels up to the ordinary high water line.

What are the specifics on the proposed Suwannee moccasinshell critical habitat designation within the three units?

Unit 1

Suwannee River, Florida encompasses 116 miles of the Suwannee River main stem and lower Santa Fe River in Alachua, Columbia, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Madison and Suwannee Counties, Florida. This unit is currently occupied by the Suwannee moccasinshell and represents 61 percent of the total proposed critical habitat designation. The Suwannee River portion of this unit overlaps critical habitat already designated for Gulf sturgeon.

Unit 2

Upper Santa Fe River, Florida encompasses 27 miles of the Santa Fe and New Rivers in Alachua, Bradford, Columbia, and Union Counties, Florida. This unit is considered unoccupied currently. This unit overlaps with critical habitat already designated for the oval pigtoe mussel.

Unit 3

Withlacoochee River, Florida and Georgia encompasses 47 miles of the Withlacoochee River in Hamilton and Madison Counties, Florida; and in Brooks and Lowndes Counties, Georgia. This unit is considered unoccupied currently. A portion of the lower part of this unit overlaps with Gulf sturgeon critical habitat.

Why is the Suwannee moccasinshell in trouble?

The primary reason for the Suwannee moccasinshell’s decline is the degradation of its habitat because of runoff from agricultural lands; pollutants that may be discharged or accidentally released from industrial and municipal wastewater facilities and from mining operations; and decreased flows as a result of groundwater extraction and drought. These threats occur throughout its range, but are more intense in two tributaries: the Withlacoochee and Santa Fe River systems.

Other threats to the species include more frequent and intense droughts, heavy rainfall events, and increased temperatures as a result of climate change; greater vulnerability to certain threats because of its small population size and range; and competition and disturbance from the invasive Asian clam.

How is critical habitat defined?

Critical habitat is a term under the ESA that identifies geographic areas containing features essential to the conservation of a listed species and which may require special management considerations or protection. Specifying the location of habitat essential to the conservation of the species helps federal agencies identify where to utilize their authorities to benefit listed species. The designation also helps focus the conservation efforts of other conservation partners, such as state and local governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals.

However, a critical habitat designation does not signal that habitat outside the designated area is unimportant or may not be beneficial for recovery of the species. The Suwannee moccasinshell and its habitat are fully protected under the ESA wherever they occur. Federal agencies will continue to consult with the Service on any action they conduct, fund and/or permit that might affect the species regardless of location or designation and the taking of any individual of the species, including taking caused by actions that affect habitat, is still prohibited without a federal permit.

When critical habitat is designated, this responsibility broadens to include consideration of any destruction or adverse modification to critical habitat that could result from a proposed federal action. Designating critical habitat also provides non-regulatory benefits by informing the public of areas that are important to the species’ recovery and identifying where conservation actions would be most effective.

Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a wildlife refuge or preserve. A critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved.

Does a critical habitat designation change protection under the ESA?

No. Once a species is listed under the ESA, it is protected wherever it occurs, and federal agencies are required to consult on any action they conduct, fund, and/or permit that might affect the species. The ESA requires the Service to identify the location of habitat essential to the conservation of the species, which the ESA terms “critical habitat.”

Only if an activity is authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency will the agency need to work with the Service to help project applicants avoid, reduce or mitigate potential impacts to listed species or their identified habitat.

Your proposal indicates there may be a need for special management considerations. What does that mean?

The physical and biological features essential to the conservation of this species may require special management considerations or protection to eliminate or reduce the following threats: reduced flows, nonpoint source pollution (from stormwater runoff or infiltration), point source pollution (from wastewater discharges or accidental releases), and physical alterations to the stream channel (for example, dredging, straightening, impounding, etc.).

To accomplish this, special management considerations or protections can include (but are not limited to): (1) moderation of surface and groundwater withdrawals; (2) improvement of the treatment of wastewater discharged from permitted facilities and the operation of those facilities; (3) reductions in pesticide and fertilizer use, especially in groundwater recharge areas and near stream channels; (4) use of best management practices (BMPs) designed to reduce sedimentation, erosion, and stream bank alterations; (5) protection and restoration of land immediately adjacent to or near creek/river banks (riparian buffers); and (6) avoidance of physical alterations to the stream channel.

What impact would the designation of critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell have on landowners adjacent to these units?

Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a wildlife refuge or preserve. Nor does it generally impact private landowners taking actions on their land that do not involve federal activities or require federal funding or permits. For the most part, landowners would see negligible change.

What would the critical habitat designation mean for federal agencies?

For the most part, federal agencies would see negligible change in how consultations with the Service occur.

Was an economic analysis completed to determine impacts the proposed designation of critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell might have on various sectors of the economy?

Yes. A draft economic analysis was conducted to determine the potential impact of the Suwannee moccasinshell’s critical habitat designation on various sectors of the economy. Based on the best available information, the Service estimates that the designation may cost less than $20,000 annually for Suwannee and Santa Fe River units and less than $80,000 per year for the Withlacoochee River unit. The Withlacoochee River unit’s slightly higher costs are due to planned transportation projects in that area.

Where can I find a copy of the proposal and draft economic analysis?

The proposed critical habitat rule, the draft economic analysis, and other supporting information are available at regulations.gov at Docket No. FWS–R4–ES–2019–0059, as well as at on the Panama City Ecological Services Field Office website.

Are you accepting comments and supporting information relevant to the Service’s critical habitat proposal and/or draft economic analysis?

Yes. To ensure any final action resulting from this proposal is based on the best scientific data available, the Service is seeking information and comments from all stakeholders and the public. However, comments simply offering support for or opposition to the proposed rule, while noted, are not used in determining a final action.

The Service will also seek peer review from independent specialists during the public comment period to ensure that the proposal is based on scientifically sound data and analyses.

A list of the specific types of information and comments being sought is provided in the “Information Requested” section of the proposed rule available via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R4–ES–2019-0059, which is the docket number for this rulemaking

How do I submit a comment or other information?

The Service is seeking comments on the proposed rule and the draft economic analysis. All comments and information must be received or postmarked on or before January 27, 2020. Comments and information may be submitted one of two ways:

  1. Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS–R4–ES–2019-0059, which is the docket number for this rulemaking. Then, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Proposed Rules link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
  2. By hard copy: Submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2019-0059; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA, 22041-3803.

Comments and information are only accepted by the methods described above and all submissions will post to regulations.gov. This generally means that we will post any personal information you provide us. The Service is not able to accept email or faxes.

Written requests for public hearings may be submitted, using the same methods, and must be received within 45 days of proposal publication, which is no later than January 13, 2020.

Are all comments and information considered by the Service in making the final decision?

Yes. All comments and supporting information received during the comment period are reviewed and given appropriate consideration as Service staff work through the final decision-making processes. Stakeholders and the public play an important role in helping the Service ensure any final actions are not only based on the best scientific and commercial information available, but also accurate and more effective. The Service has a history of producing final decisions and actions that reflect this invaluable input.

Where can I find more information on Suwannee moccasinshell or other mussel conservation?

Visit the Suwannee moccasinshell’s species profile.

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