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

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposes critical habitat for freshwater mussel in Georgia and Florida

Members of the public invited comment on the proposal

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell, a freshwater mussel protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 2016. The Service is also making available a draft economic analysis that assesses the potential impact of the Suwannee moccasinshell’s critical habitat designation on various sectors of the economy. Members of the public are invited to comment on the proposal to help inform future conservation of this aquatic species and its habitat in southwest Georgia and northwest Florida.

The Service proposes designating critical habitat for the Suwannee moccasinshell in three separate locations 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. The proposal does not include any terrestrial lands, only stream channels up to the ordinary high water line. Land ownership adjacent to the critical habitat area consists of private (72%), state (27%), and county (1%) lands.

Based on the best available information, the Service estimates that the critical habitat designation will have an economic impact of less than $20,000 annually for the Suwannee and Santa Fe River units, and less than $80,000 per year for the Withlacoochee River unit. The higher economic impacts associated with the Withlacoochee River Unit are a result of efforts to avoid or minimize impacts to the Suwannee moccasinshell from planned transportation projects in that area.

The Suwannee moccasinshell was historically present throughout much of the Suwannee River Basin, including the Suwannee River main stem, Santa Fe River sub-basin in Florida, and the Withlacoochee River in Florida and Georgia. The current range of the small freshwater mussel only includes the middle Suwannee River main stem and the lower Santa Fe River. Recent surveys targeting the mussel indicate it has declined in abundance and range, and that it may no longer inhabit the Withlacoochee River and upper Santa Fe River sub-basin.

The Suwannee moccasinshell’s decline is mostly the result of poor water quality and habitat degradation due to runoff from agricultural lands not using best management practices, pollutants discharged or accidentally released from industrial and municipal wastewater facilities and mining operations, and decreased surface water flows due to groundwater extraction and drought. These threats occur throughout its range, but are more prevalent in the Withlacoochee and Santa Fe River systems.

Designating critical habitat on federal or non-federal lands informs landowners and the public about specific areas important to the species’ conservation. Identifying critical habitat also helps focus the efforts of conservation partners, such as state and local governments, conservation groups, industry and individuals, to recover endangered and threatened species.

Critical habitat designation does not affect land ownership or establish a wildlife refuge, reserve, preserve or other conservation area. The designation of critical habitat on private land has no impact on individual landowner activities unless federal funding, permits or activities are involved. The regulatory implications of designating critical habitat apply to federal actions that involve a federal permit, license or funding, that may adversely modify critical habitat. If this is the case, the Service works with the federal action agency and, where appropriate, private or other landowners to amend the project so that it doesn’t adversely modify the critical habitat.

The proposed critical habitat rule, draft economic analysis, and other supporting information are available at regulations.gov. Members of the public are invited to submit comments on the proposed rule and draft economic analysis. Requests for a public hearing on this proposal may be submitted by January 13, 2020. Public comments and supporting information must be received or postmarked on or before January 27, 2020, through one or more of the following ways:

  1. Electronically: Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: regulations.gov . In the Keyword box, enter Docket 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. Generally, this means that we will post any personal information provided.

Contact

Chuck Underwood, Public Affairs Specialist
chuck_underwood@fws.gov, (904) 731-3332

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 fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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