ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WHTM) — Two species of freshwater mussels, both of which can be found in Pennsylvania waters, are getting new protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that they are listing longsolid and round hickorynut freshwater mussels as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. (“Threatened” means they could potentially become “endangered”; “endangered” means they could potentially go extinct.)

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Both species of mussel prefer a mixture of sand, gravel, and cobble stream bottoms. The longsolid is a medium-sized mussel up to five inches long that can live up to 50 years, which currently can be found in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. It has dropped from 160 known populations to 60, 48 of which show no sign of young mussels growing into adults.

Longsolid Mussel (USFWS)
Round Hickorynut Mussels (USFWS)

The round hickorynut is a small- to medium-sized mussel, up to three inches long, which can live up to 15 years. They are found in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia. From a high of 301 known populations, only 69 are known to exist today. Forty-nine of those show no sign of young mussels growing into adults.

Both species suffer from habitat degradation and loss, genetic isolation, and threats from invasive and non-native species. The Threatened designation allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitats and tailor ESA protections in the hopes of helping the mussels recover.

The critical habitats include a total of 1,115 river miles for the longsolid and 921 river miles for the round hickorynut. Eight of the critical habitat units for the longsolid and round hickorynut overlap. Designating critical habitat requires federal agencies to consult with the Service when implementing, funding, or permitting activities. However, it does not affect private land ownership, establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation areas, or allow the government or public to access private lands. The designation would also exempt certain conservation and restoration efforts by state wildlife agencies, stream bank and channel restoration projects, and forest management that implement state-approved best management practices.

The longsolid and round hickorynut mussels are found largely where federally protected mussels already occur, so any increased regulatory burden is expected to be minimal.

Native mussels indicate broader stream health. Healthy mussel populations usually mean a healthy stream. Mussels keep the water clean by filtering their food from the water, and with it, sediment and other pollutants. North America has about 300 species of mussels, of which 65% of the freshwater mussel species are imperiled.

“Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work and that’s why we are working collaboratively with biologists from state wildlife agencies and other experts to better understand these two wide-ranging freshwater mussels,” said acting Regional Director Mike Oetker. “ESA protections will benefit these species by raising awareness, inspiring conservation partnerships, and making funding available for their recovery.”