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A mussel with fringe around its opening partially burried in the sand on the river bottom.
Information icon Appalachian elktoe in the Little River Translyvania County NC. Photo by Gary Peeples, USFWS.

Wildlife agency completes review of Highway 19 widening project

In March, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded its review of the proposed widening of U.S. Highway 19 between Interstate 26 and Spruce Pine, determining that the project would not jeopardize the existence of any threatened or endangered species in the area.

The Service’s primary concern is the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, found in the Cane, North and South Toe, and Nolichucky Rivers of the Nolichucky River basin which covers all of Yancey and Mitchell Counties. Of the elktoe’s seven remaining populations, this is the only one that branches up multiple streams in a single river system and is considered one of the best and most important populations. The elktoe and its habitat are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and any project that receives federal funding or requires a federal permit must be reviewed for any negative impacts and those impacts minimized or eliminated.

“Our review of this project demonstrates how closely the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Service can work to meet both of our goals – protecting the streams and widening the road. We collaborated closely on the project to include safeguards to protect or improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. This shows that a lot of fears of the elktoe being a tremendous burden on the area are proven false,” said Marella Buncick, the Service biologist who reviewed the project.

The project will widen 29.3 miles of US Highway 19, with about 21 miles of that distance in the Nolichucky River basin. North Carolina DOT will implement many measures to minimize impacts to the mussel and aquatic wildlife in general, including:

  • Protecting more than 57.6 acres of streamside habitat stretching along more than 19,000 linear feet of streams in the Nolichucky River basin
  • Restoring more than 11,000 feet of existing streams in the Nolichucky River basin that are within the project footprint and have been straightened or otherwise degraded. These stream reaches will be purchased as part of the project right-of-way and will be permanently protected from development.
  • Designing new and replacement bridges so stormwater flowing off them is funneled into catch basins and through a vegetated buffer to filter any pollutants and allow the water to soak into the soil instead of flowing off the bridge into the water.
  • Replacing the culvert at the crossing of highway 19 and Bald Creek with a bridge, helping aquatic life move up and down the stream at that point.
  • Relocating all mussels from bridge construction areas

Although the review is concluded, the Service will be involved in monitoring the project’s stream impacts through the life of the project. The Service maintains concern about water quality if development along the road isn’t properly managed. Poorly implemented development can contribute tremendously to storm-water runoff problems. Stormwater runoff occurs when precipitation hits impervious surfaces like asphalt or roofs and can’t soak into the ground. As a result, the water flows over the surface, picking up pollutants like brake dust and antifreeze and washes them down a storm drain and, in a poorly designed system, into a stream. The abnormally high amount of water that enters a stream through storm drains contributes to downstream flooding and erodes the bed and bank of a stream, ruining habitat and escalating erosion problems.

“The foundation of economic success in our area is the scenic forests and high quality streams of the mountains,” remarked John Fridell, the Service’s Appalachian elktoe expert. “A lot of people look to this road project as an economic boost to the area, but it would be tragically ironic if this road ends up degrading that foundation.”

The elktoe was listed as endangered in 1994 under the Endangered Species Act. As a result of a lawsuit brought against the Service, in 2002 reaches of the Cane, North and South Toe, and Nolichucky Rivers were designated as critical habitat for the Appalachian elktoe, or habitat essential for the conservation of the species. With this designation the habitat itself, not just the animal, received protection under the Endangered Species Act. This move brought satisfaction to some while leading others to worry about the economic impacts on the area, including the fate of this road-widening project.


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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