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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Proposes Critical Habitat for Endangered Appalachian Elktoe


February 8, 2001

Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 404/679-7291

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced a proposal to designate critical habitat in North Carolina and Tennessee for the Appalachian elktoe, an endangered freshwater mussel. This rare mollusk presently survives only in scattered pockets of suitable habitat in portions of the Little Tennessee River system, Pigeon River system, the Little River in North Carolina, and the Nolichucky River system in North Carolina and Tennessee. It has a yellowish-brown to greenish-black colored shell, and reaches up to about 4 inches in length.

Although the complete historical range of the Appalachian elktoe is unknown, available information suggests that the species once lived in most of the rivers and larger creeks of the upper Tennessee River system in North Carolina. Reservoir construction, the run-off and discharge of sediment and pollutants, and other factors adversely affecting water and habitat quality have greatly reduced the species= numbers and distribution. The Service added the Appalachian elktoe to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants in 1994. There was no designation of critical habitat for the Appalachian elktoe because the agency determined it would be of no benefit to this mussel at that time.

Critical habitat refers to specific geographic areas that are essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management considerations. A critical habitat designation, however, does not set up a preserve or refuge, nor does it affect activities on private lands that have no Federal involvement. Its protection, therefore, only applies to situations where federal funding, authorization , or land is involved. Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Service on any action they take that may affect critical habitat, either directly or indirectly. This requirement has no regulatory impact on landowners taking actions on their land that do not involve federal funding or authorization.

The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Foundation for Global Sustainability challenged the Service's "not prudent" critical habitat determination for the Appalachian elktoe and three other species and filed a lawsuit against the Service, June 30, 1999, in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Subsequently, on February 29, 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs in which the Service agreed to reexamine its prudency determination and submit a withdrawal of the existing "not prudent" determination for the elktoe, together with a new proposed critical habitat determination, if appropriate, to the Federal Register, by February 1, 2001.

The proposal that is published in the Federal Register product of the Service's reexamination of the prudency determination for the Appalachian elktoe. The proposal reflects the Service's interpretation of recent judicial opinions on critical habitat designation and the standards placed on the Service by these opinions.

The proposed areas of designated critical habitat include portions of the Little Tennessee River in Swain and Macon Counties, North Carolina; Tuckasegee River in Jackson and Swain Counties, North Carolina; Cheoah River in Graham County, North Carolina; Little River in Transylvania County, North Carolina; West Fork Pigeon River and Pigeon River in Haywood County, North Carolina; South Toe River and Cane River in Yancey County, North Carolina; North Toe River and Toe River in Yancey and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina; and Nolichucky River in Yancey and Mitchell Counties, North Carolina, and Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Approximately 67 percent -- 9.0 river miles -- of the portion of the Nolichucky River that is proposed for designation as critical habitat is bordered by the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina and the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee; 88 percent--8.0 river miles--of the portion of the Cheoah River proposed for designation as critical habitat is bordered by the Nantahala National Forest; and a small percentage of the portion of the Tuckasegee River proposed for designation as critical habitat is bordered by land belonging to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian. The remainder of the land along the portions of the Nolichucky River, Cheoah River, and Tuckasegee River proposed for designation as critical habitat and all of the land along the portions of the Little Tennessee River, Little River, West Fork Pigeon River, Pigeon River, North Toe River, South Toe River, and Cane River that are proposed for designation as critical habitat are privately owned.

The only regulatory consequence of a designation of critical habitat is that Federal agencies must consult with the Service before undertaking actions, issuing permits, or providing funding for activities that might destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. However, because the Appalachian elktoe is already listed as endangered, Federal agencies are already required to consult with the Service on any of their actions that may affect the species and to ensure that their actions do not jeopardize the species' continued existence, regardless of whether critical habitat has been designated. Therefore, there would be little or no additional regulatory burden placed on Federal agencies as a result of a designation of critical habitat for the Appalachian elktoe.

In addition, even before the Appalachian elktoe was listed, the Service had been working with other Federal and State agencies and private researchers, landowners, and others to carry out research and other conservation/recovery activities for the Appalachian elktoe, including identifying activities that threaten the species and its habitat and carrying out measures to eliminate these threats.

The Service is soliciting data and comments from the public on all aspects of the proposal to designate critical habitat for the Appalachian elktoe. Comments should be submitted to the State Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Asheville Field Office, 160 Zillicoa Street, Asheville, North Carolina 28801, by April 9, 2001. Requests for a public hearing must be submitted by March 26, 2001. Additional information may be obtained from the Asheville Field Office by contacting Mr. John Fridell at 828/258-3939, Ext. 225 or e-mail john_fridell@fws.gov

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies.

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Atlanta, GA 30345

Phone: 404/679-7289 Fax: 404/679-7286

2001 News Releases

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