Pimplebacks and pearlymussels: Biologist recognized for freshwater mussel conservation

Patty and Craig (3)

Patty Morrison’s (right) efforts to restore freshwater mussel populations sometimes sends her to work in a dive suit! Photo courtesy of Patty.

What drew Patty Morrison of Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge to freshwater mussels? Sure, she admits that mussels (with names like purple cat’s paw pearlymussel and orange-foot pimpleback) are obscure, but amazing species: “The more you learn about them, the more you want to know,” she says.

Patty’s leadership for conserving freshwater mussels like the white wartyback and the northern riffleshell made her a shoo-in for selection as a 2016 Recovery Champion. Her work as a wildlife biologist at the refuge has supported three years of successful captive rearing of purple cat’s paw pearlymussel and the first ever in-vitro rearing of an orange-foot pimpleback.

Patty Morrison’s “leadership, professionalism, and commitment to sound science have helped foster highly successful partnerships involving 24 state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Jim Kurth

Recovery Champions are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and their partners whose work is advancing the recovery of endangered and threatened species of plants and animals.

Patty Morrison Diving (3)

It’s dive time! Photo courtesy of Patty.

We had the chance to ask Patty some questions as part of her recognition.

What is the problem/issue you are helping to address/solve, regarding freshwater mussels? Historically, we have treated our rivers and streams so poorly, over time many of our freshwater mussel species have been reduced to isolated populations separated by many hundreds of miles. But the Clean Water Act worked, dams are being removed, fish hosts have rebounded, and all that is missing in many river systems is a “jump start” to get these mussel species back in their home waters. We have the all the science tools at our disposal to reconnect and augment these populations, with the goal of ultimately removing them from the endangered species list.

What motivates you to work for these species? It’s a combination of the amazing people who dedicate themselves to helping these obscure species, and the amazing mussels themselves. The more you learn about them, the more you want to know. What better example is there of showing how all things are connected in an ecosystem than freshwater mussels, their fish hosts, water quality and habitat?

Patty prepping mussel bags to stock

Patty Morrison, 2016 Recovery Champion, prepares mussel bags for stocking. Photo courtesy of Patty.

How does it go down – what work is done to benefit mussels? It actually starts with building relationships. Restoration of mussels is a long term commitment. Many of us in the Ohio River ecosystem have been working together for over 20 years, doing threat assessments in watersheds, species status reviews, surveys and inventories, and development and refinement of techniques for adult mussel translocations and captive propagation of juvenile mussels. From there, it’s just moving forward using adaptive management: what worked, what didn’t and why? Then, sharing this information and moving the needle forward a little bit each year.

Who do you work with? I am fortunate to work with people from three U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest–across all programs), 8 states, and an amazing array of private organizations and citizens who care deeply about the health of our rivers and streams. People who are not afraid to try something new, to be “courageous for conservation.”

What do you hope to result from your work? To spread the story of the mussels so everyone at least knows what they are, where they live, and how important they are to our overall quality of life. To keep the energy, enthusiasm and passion alive and passing it on to the next generation of stewards.

Congratulations, Patty!

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