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Seven small brownish-yellow mussels held in open hands by a biologist.
Information icon Atlantic pigtoes ready for release. Photo by USFWS.

Fish and Wildlife Service proposes threatened status for declining mussel

Proposed critical habitat designation and economic analysis available for review

The Atlantic pigtoe, a freshwater mussel native to waters from Virginia to Georgia, has lost more than half of its historical range, and remaining populations may not be sustainable over time.

To help this species and its habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to extend protection for it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Service also has identified areas that are essential for conservation of this freshwater mussel and proposes to designate 539 river miles in 16 units as critical habitat. Designation of critical habitat applies only to federal activities; this designation on private land has no impact on private landowner activities that do not require federal funding or federal permits.

Only areas currently occupied by the species are proposed for designation within the James, Chowan, Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear and Yadkin-Pee Dee river basins in Virginia and North Carolina. Areas unoccupied by the mussel in South Carolina and Georgia are excluded from the proposal. This designation is for federal agencies that are required by the ESA to conserve protected fish and wildlife and only affects projects that use federal funding or need federal permits.

At the same time, the Service is proposing to identify management activities that would be exempted from legal protections that come with listing the Atlantic pigtoe as threatened. A special rule under the ESA’s Section 4(d) would apply only in the event the Service lists the freshwater mussel as threatened. The rule would exempt stream restoration along river banks, collection of mussel broodstock, captive propagation, stocking into unoccupied areas, tissue sampling for genetic analysis, and forestry/agricultural practices that incorporate certified best management practices.

The Service is seeking new information from the public and the scientific community and others that will help in making a final determination about the proposed listing, proposed critical habitat designation and implementation of the proposed special rule. The proposals will appear in the Federal Register October 11, 2018, opening a 60-day public comment period.

The Atlantic pigtoe’s existence is threatened by water pollution coming directly from sites such as sewage treatment plants; road drainage runoff, private wastewater discharges, or other sources; erosion; or dams that affect mussel populations by disrupting natural flow patterns, scouring river bottoms, changing water temperatures, and fragmenting habitat.

The Atlantic pigtoe is recognized as threatened/imperiled by Virginia, endangered/critically imperiled by North Carolina, and endangered/critically imperiled by Georgia. All three states have been actively engaged with local and federal partners in understanding and addressing the impacts to the freshwater mussel and other imperiled wildlife that share its habitat. There are seven federally protected animals found in the same waters as the Atlantic pigtoe that share similar habitat needs, including the James spinymussel, Tar River spinymussel, dwarf wedgemussel, yellow lance mussel, Roanoke logperch, shortnose sturgeon, and the Atlantic sturgeon.

Critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved. Designating critical habitat on federal or non-federal lands informs landowners and the public of the specific areas that are important to the conservation of the species. Identifying this habitat also helps focus the conservation efforts of other conservation partners, such as commonwealth and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals.

A Draft Economic Analysis indicates that the proposed critical habitat designation would create an increased administrative cost to federally permitted or funded projects of \$230,000 per year or less. Little additional regulatory action is expected to be necessary due to the proposed designation of critical habitat for the Atlantic pigtoe for the following reasons:

  1. The Atlantic pigtoe’s current distribution overlaps with other listed species that share some of the same habitat requirements.
  2. The proposed critical habitat coincides with areas currently occupied by the species, so there likely will not be any incremental conservation efforts recommended for the proposed critical habitat above or different from the efforts already recommended for the listed species.

Many organizations including the Service have been working to conserve the Atlantic pigtoe and other freshwater mussels. Designating the mussel as threatened would allow the Service to further its partnerships with organizations implementing conservation measures, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the North Carolina Land Trusts that facilitate and perform habitat management and restoration on private lands. North Carolina State University and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission conduct captive propagation, augmentation, reintroductions and monitoring of wild populations.

Conserving and restoring freshwater mussels benefits the people who live, work and play in nearby communities. Mussels are ecosystem engineers, filter feeders that affect their environment for the better by removing nutrients and algae from the water. Also, the algae that grow on mussel shells serve as food for insects, fish and other animals in the river.

The public comment period is part of a 60-day process that begins with the publication of the proposed listing of the Atlantic pigtoe as threatened and proposal to designate critical habitat in the Federal Register for public comment on October 11, 2018 and will continue through December 10, 2018. The Service will consider all comments on the proposed listing rule, proposed designated critical habitat and associated economic analysis, and proposed special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA that are received or postmarked by that date. Information on how to comment can be found at under docket number FWS-R4-ES-2018-0046.

All comments are posted on, including any personal information you provide. To increase efficiency in downloading comments, groups providing mass submissions should submit their comments in an Excel file.

Requests for a public hearing must be made in writing by November 25, 2018, to the above address. Persons who use a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) may call the Federal Information Relay Service (FIRS) at 800–877–8339.

For more information visit the Atlantic pigtoe species profile, read the frequently asked questions, download the species status assessment, or contact Pete Benjamin at 919-856-4520, ext. 11 or


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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