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A lobster-shaped and colored crayfish with tinges of rust and blue.
Information icon Big Sandy crayfish. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University.

Agency identifies habitat essential for the conservation of two rare crayfishes, seeks public comment

Designation would help partners conserve the species in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia

The Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfishes have disappeared from many of the streams they once occupied in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect both species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2016. The agency has now completed the next step required by the ESA: identifying areas of habitat that are essential for the species’ conservation. Critical habitat helps focus conservation efforts where they are most needed, particularly those of federal agencies. The designation does not affect land ownership, set aside lands under any formal designation, or establish a formal conservation area.

The Big Sandy crayfish persists in less than 40 percent of the streams in which it once likely lived, and designating those remaining streams — a total of 362 stream miles — would help focus conservation actions. These streams are located in Martin and Pike counties, Kentucky; Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties, Virginia; and McDowell, Mingo, and Wayne counties, West Virginia. The Guyandotte River crayfish, once found in six stream systems across the Upper Guyandotte River Basin in West Virginia, now persists along just 41 miles of two streams in Wyoming County, West Virginia. That alone is not enough for the recovery for the Guyandotte crayfish. Therefore, the Service is proposing additional stream reaches that total 42 miles in Logan County, West Virginia.

Critical habitat designations raise awareness about the needs of listed species and focus the conservation efforts of the Service and others. The recovery strategy for both crayfishes focuses on building collaborative partnerships with local, state and federal agencies, private landowners, local businesses, and others to maintain and improve the health of the watersheds in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte river basins. Keeping streams healthy for crayfish also benefits people by ensuring clean water for drinking, swimming, wading and fishing. Additionally, healthy crayfish populations help recycle animal and plant matter and serve as food for other wildlife, including sport fish.

Existing conservation partners include state wildlife agencies, West Liberty University, West Virginia Division of Highways, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the West Virginia Coal Association and the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Authority. Additionally, private landowners can request technical and financial assistance through programs with the Service, including the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

The streams proposed as critical habitat are considered state waters, and adjacent land is owned by a combination of federal, state and private landowners. The designation would not affect adjacent landowner activities unless those activities involve federal funding or federal permits and may affect designated streams. Critical habitat designation does not allow the government or public to access private lands, nor does it require non-federal landowners to restore habitat or recover species.

Everyone can help keep streams healthy for crayfish, trout and other wildlife by following these recommendations:

  • Drive ATVs and vehicles only on designated trails and not through or in streams.
  • Don’t dump chemicals into streams and do report chemical spills to state environmental protection agencies.
  • During timber harvest, construction or other projects, implement best management practices for sediment and erosion control per state agency guidance. Here are examples from Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Start a watershed group or assist in stream and water quality monitoring efforts.
  • Plant trees and other native woody vegetation along stream banks to help restore and preserve water quality.

The public comment period for proposed critical habitat designation will be open for 60 days. Comments can be submitted at under docket # FWS–R5–ES–2019-0098. Following the comment period, the Service will make a final decision regarding critical habitat for the species.

Learn more about these crayfishes.


Meagan Racey, Virginia, West Virginia, (413) 523-8558

Phil Kloer, Kentucky, (404) 679-7299

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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