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Critical Habitat Proposed for Carolina Heelsplitter


July 11, 2001

John Fridell, 828/258-3939, Ext. 225
Tom MacKenzie, 404/679-7291

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced a proposal to designate critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the Carolina heelsplitter, an endangered freshwater mussel, in portions of a river and nine creeks in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Under the Act, critical habitat refers to specific geographic areas that are essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations or protection. A critical habitat designation does not set up a preserve or refuge and only applies to situations where federal funding, authorization, or land is involved. It has no regulatory impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not involve federal funding, authorization, or permits.

“This rare mollusk currently exists only in scattered pockets of suitable habitat in portions of three small streams in North Carolina and six small creeks and one river in South Carolina,” said Sam D. Hamilton, the Service's Regional Director for the Southeast Region. “The designation of critical habitat will educate the public about the needs of the species and help ensure its future conservation.”

The Carolina heelsplitter is a freshwater mussel with a greenish brown to dark brown shell that grows to a length of approximately 4.6 inches. It was once found in several locations within the Catawba and Pee Dee River Systems in North Carolina and the Pee Dee and Savannah River Systems and possibly the Saluda River System in South Carolina. Today, however, there are only six known small, surviving populations -- two in North Carolina and four in South Carolina.

Contributing to the decline of this species is habitat loss and alteration associated with impoundments and other stream-altering activities, discharges of sewage and industrial wastewater, increased storm water run-off of silt, fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants from poorly implemented land-use activities.

The Service listed the Carolina heelsplitter as an endangered species in 1993. No critical habitat was designated at that time because the Service believed that it would not benefit this mussel.

The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Foundation for Global Sustainability challenged the Service's "not prudent" critical habitat determination for the Carolina heelsplitter and three other species and filed a lawsuit against the Service on 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 Carolina heelsplitter together with a new proposed critical habitat determination, if appropriate, to the Federal Register, by July 1, 2001.

The proposal that is published in the Federal Register is the product of the Service's reexamination of the prudency determination for the Carolina heelsplitter. The proposal reflects the Service's interpretation of recent judicial opinions on critical habitat designation and the standards placed on the Service by those opinions. The Federal Register notice can be viewed at

The proposed areas of designated critical habitat include portions of Goose, Duck (a tributary to Goose Creek) and Waxhaw Creeks, in Union County, North Carolina; Lynches River in Lancaster, Chesterfield, and Kershaw Counties, South Carolina; Flat Creek (a tributary to the Lynches River) and Gills Creek in Lancaster County, South Carolina; Turkey Creek in Edgefield and McCormick Counties, South Carolina; Mountain and Beaverdam Creeks (tributaries to Turkey Creek) in Edgefield County, South Carolina; and Cuffytown Creek in Greenwood and McCormick Counties, South Carolina. All of the areas we propose to designate as critical habitat are within what the Service believes to be the geographical area occupied by the Carolina heelsplitter and include all known surviving occurrences of the species.

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 Carolina heelsplitter 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, the Service expects little or no additional regulatory burden to be placed on federal agencies as a result of a designation of critical habitat for the Carolina heelsplitter.

Even before the Carolina heelsplitter was listed, the Service had been working with other federal and State agencies and private researchers, landowners, and others to undertake research and other conservation and recovery activities for the Carolina heelsplitter, 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 Carolina heelsplitter. 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 September 10, 2001. Requests for a public hearing must be submitted by August 27, 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

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource 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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2001 News Releases

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