High-Definition Conservation: Conserving imperiled species in the Upper Tennessee River Basin
When we think of river life, for many of us a handful of animals may come to mind – trout, smallmouth bass, muskie. But in the Southern Appalachians, waters of the Upper Tennessee River Basin are alive with a whopping 255 species of fish and mussels.
Despite this incredible diversity of stream life, contaminants affecting water quality, low population size and habitat fragmentation have combined to threaten many species. Twelve of the 172 fish species known from the basin are on the federal endangered and threatened species list, as are 24 of the 83 known mussel species. Those numbers add to 36 threatened or endangered animals across a river basin covering an area about the size of West Virginia.
For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners have worked cooperatively to recover these rare animals, employing a variety of strategies. In looking at how best to move forward, the Service decided to consider where and how it could use its limited resources to have the greatest impact on these rare animals. The result is the Imperiled Aquatic Species Conservation Strategy for the Upper Tennessee River Basin – a flexible tool to help Service biologists and managers decide where to focus their efforts and identify opportunities in coordination with partners.
To imagine how this might work, consider the collection of globally rare freshwater mussels that are found in the rivers of the basin. Mussels help filter and clean river water, which make them important to people. Unfortunately, there are many stretches of river where mussels survive in very low numbers. In some areas, mussels are nonexistent due to past water quality problems that may have since been corrected.
By focusing partner resources and collaborating on mussel propagation and augmentation programs, says Brad Kreps, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Program, partners can restore and expand mussel populations across the river system. They also can continue to address water quality problems and habitat issues wherever concerns still exist.
Roberta Hylton of the Service’s Southwestern Virginia Field Office, part of a team of FWS scientists and managers who developed the strategy, says all of this adds up to a healthier and more sustainable resource for wildlife and people in the basin.
“People do not live apart from the Upper Tennessee River Basin ecosystem; they are connected to it,” Hylton says. “Working to conserve aquatic biodiversity means we will also be working to protect water quality and the interests of citizens.”