Fighting for Underwater Underdogs
Biologist Linnéa Gullikson Uses her Conservation Muscle to Fight for the Future of Western Ridged Mussels

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I had the opportunity to chat with Linnéa Gullikson, a biologist who has recently begun her conservation career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Pacific Region. With no shortage of knowledge or passion, Linnéa shares her experience and hope for the future. 

As a biologist with the Ecological Services program, what do you do? 

In Ecological Services, we have a big job! We are responsible for implementing various sections of the Endangered Species Act. My job involves Section 4, which is listing and recovery, and Section 7 Section 7
Section 7 Consultation The Endangered Species Act (ESA) directs all Federal agencies to work to conserve endangered and threatened species and to use their authorities to further the purposes of the Act. Section 7 of the Act, called "Interagency Cooperation," is the mechanism by which Federal agencies ensure the actions they take, including those they fund or authorize, do not jeopardize the existence of any listed species.

Learn more about Section 7
, which is providing consultations to federal agencies to reduce impacts to listed species from their actions.

Can you tell me about how you got here? What has your career path in conservation looked like so far?

I grew up in Oakland, California, and loved spending time in nature, particularly backpacking with my dad and sister in the Sierra Nevada mountains every summer. These early outdoor experiences connecting with people I love in places I love really sparked my love of nature. I decided to pursue a career in conservation, and this led me to college at UC Santa Cruz. Toward the end of my time there studying ecology and evolutionary biology, I took a chance and answered an email which turned out to be an application for something called the Directorate Fellows Program – a summer fellowship program through the Service that gave me a taste of a career in conservation biology. Although this was during the pandemic, I was able to get real world experience for 11 weeks studying two freshwater mussel species in Texas remotely as part of a species status assessment for these very important aquatic indicator species. 

And four years later, you are here in Washington state studying both the western ridged mussels and the Oregon spotted frog, and helping coordinate the conservation and recovery of both species. What does your typical workday look like?

Yes, I’m living in Olympia, Washington, now. There is such an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, so I feel right at home. I’m based out of our Washington Fish and Wildlife Office and split my time between my species lead work for the western ridged mussel and the Oregon spotted frog, consulting on construction projects to reduce impacts to listed species, and getting out in the field as much as I can. Lately, this looks like surveys for Oregon spotted frog and weekly monitoring of their egg masses. I am the species co-lead, and it is an important learning opportunity for me to get out there and see the species and their habitat, plus getting my hands dirty is how I learn best! 

Western ridged mussels seem to be pretty underrated and unassuming, as they aren’t as well known or as glamorous as some species we work to save. Why are you spending time studying them?

I've been involved with the western ridged mussel species status assessment from the time I was hired 2.5 years ago. Although mussels are fascinating and ecologically important creatures, most people who are new to mussels don’t find them that charismatic. Freshwater mussels have had a history of being overlooked in many conservation efforts up until more recently, but they are very important because they play a vital ecological and cultural role. 

Mussels are the hidden aquatic heroes of our watersheds and act as powerful detoxifiers, filtering out sediment, pollution, and pathogens from the ecosystem. However, freshwater mussels are one of the most imperiled groups of animals, and many mussel species have been rapidly declining. The western ridged mussel, which occurs in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and British Columbia, has decreased in distribution by 43% from their historical range. In 2020, the species was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act due to these declines. They are also quite long-lived; they can live for up to 60 years and reach a size of about 5 inches in length. 

Mussels are also indicator species. So not only can they help keep the water healthy, they can tell us when it is not healthy enough for other species such as salmon to survive in due to hazards like pollution or temperature changes. 

Locally, freshwater mussels have long been important to the Tribes along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Freshwater mussels are a “first food” for Tribes such as the Umatilla Tribe, and a staple of the diet that was consumed for countless generations. 

What is a species status assessment and why are you working on one for the western ridged mussel?

The species status assessment compiles the best available science to help determine if the species should be protected under the Endangered Species Act and to what extent. I am working with a team of folks from different Western states on the status assessment and am learning a lot from these passionate and knowledgeable biologists. 

It sounds like you are passionate about this species, too. Would you say you have an emotional connection to mussels? 
I have developed one over the years. I think what really solidified it for me was when I helped out with the translocation of western ridged mussels in the Klamath River about six months ago to prepare for the dam removals there. Massive loads of sediment had built up behind the Iron Gate Dam and would be released when the dam was removed. A layer of sediment a few feet deep was predicted to bury and smother the western ridged mussel beds downstream of the dam. To rescue these mussels, we snorkeled the river, collected thousands of mussels, and moved them to a new spot. This was a bonding experience for me. These mussels are sort of the underdogs of the conservation world, and I feel like it is part of my job to be an advocate for them.

That sounds like a neat experience, both challenging and rewarding. Can you share another? 

I am lucky enough that I have had a lot of those “my job is so cool” moments. I had another one just last week when I went down to Trout Lake and Conboy National Wildlife Refuge for some Oregon spotted frog egg mass surveys. As we were kayaking through a beautiful wetland to get to one particular egg laying site, it hit me, “I get paid for this!”

This job does come with challenges, too. My biggest challenge right now is working to conserve mussels in the face of big obstacles like widespread mass die-offs that are happening throughout North America with no explanation. We have identified many different stressors, and researchers are working to figure out which ones may be causing the die-offs.

What are your hopes for your future work with these species and the challenge they face? 
My biggest hope for the western ridged mussels is recovery. The incredible partnerships we have with many organizations such as the Xerces Society and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are fueling my faith that the western ridged mussels have a brighter future. Collaboration creates conservation opportunities that wouldn’t be possible if we were to go this alone. I’m excited to be serving on the organizing team for the Western Freshwater Mussel Conservation Strategy, a brand-new effort which brought together many Tribes, agencies, and non-governmental organizations throughout the region to create a collaborative, proactive conservation strategy to recover all native freshwater mussel species in the Western U.S. Each day we are working with partners to learn more about freshwater mussels and put what we learn into practice to make sure this aquatic underdog stays in the fight in the future. I feel very hopeful that it will!