ELKINS — Janet Clayton’s work, often conducted in the murky depths of West Virginia’s rivers, has been rewarded.
Clayton, a biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources, has been named the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 5 Recovery Champion for 2018. The award recognizes people who advance the recovery of endangered and threatened species of plants and animals.
As the DNR’s mussel program leader, Clayton has spent almost three decades working with some of the Mountain State’s rarest creatures. Through her efforts, two federally endangered mussel species have been reintroduced and populations of five other species have improved.
“Janet’s knowledge, leadership and passion for the conservation of endangered freshwater mussels helped foster highly successful partnerships committed to the recovery of these species,” said Margaret Everson, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy director. “She has taught others about the importance of these species and inspired them to support recovery efforts.”
Oddly enough, it’s work she almost didn’t get to do.
Her first job with the DNR, as a water-quality compliance monitor, had her doing surveys of aquatic insects, crustaceans and other macroinvertebrates.
“My bosses wanted to send someone to Tennessee Tech to take a mussel class,” Clayton recalled. “I overheard them talking to one of the new guys in the department about it, and he told them he really didn’t want to go. I opened the door and said, ‘Can I go?’ I was literally in the right place at the right time.”
Even after she finished the class, Clayton didn’t immediately go into full-time mussel work. Instead, she transferred to the DNR’s Elkins Operations Center to study macroinvertebrates associated with acid rain and the agency’s early attempts to counteract the effects of acid rain by treating streams with limestone sand.
“Before long, Craig Stihler of the endangered species group asked me to do some mussel surveys,” Clayton said. “I was doing acid-rain work with mussel work on the side. As time went along, it flip-flopped. I’m now full-time with mussels.”
Early on, a lot of Clayton’s time was spent doing survey work. She spent countless hours trying to find, identify and count mussels — either by “creek stomping,” wading small streams, or by scuba diving in larger waters.
“I established 26 long-term monitoring sites,” she said. “Some have been monitored every five years for 15 to 20 years now.”
Her work helped identify 10 mussel species currently considered endangered: clubshell, fanshell, James spinymussel, northern riffleshell, pink mucket, snuffbox, rayed bean, spectaclecase, sheepnose and purple cat’s paw.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Clayton’s surveying and monitoring techniques have resulted in “significant improvement to the status of freshwater mussels throughout the Ohio River basin.”
Part of her work also included capturing mussels and taking them to the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, where they were used as brood stock for a captive propagation program. The harvested mussels’ offspring, hatched and reared in captivity, were later released back to their natural environment to boost populations depleted by pollution or habitat loss.
Despite her accomplishments, Clayton said the award caught her completely by surprise.
“I had no inkling it was coming,” she said. “They absolutely caught me off guard. You should have seen the look on my face when I walked into that room.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of the award, she said, was that Bob Anderson, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, also received one.
“He’s a mussel guy, and I’ve worked with him a lot,” she said. “He thought it was nice I was named with him, and I thought it was nice he was named with me. It felt like quite the honor.”
Clayton plans to retire next summer, and she hopes to leave her job in the hands of someone equally committed to the cause. She believes her successor will face a daunting task.
“We’re losing mussel habitat,” she said. “Every pipeline that crosses a stream represents a loss of habitat. Streams are going dry, having their water pumped out for Marcellus Shale [gas] drilling. The climate is changing. Last year was the wettest I’d seen in my career; streams got gutted, scoured out by high-flow events.
“We’ve had major [pollution-related] mussel kills on Dunkard Creek, on Tug Fork and on the Ohio River. We’ve got a serious mussel decline going on Patterson Creek, in the Eastern Panhandle.”
Not all the news is bad, though. Clayton said mussel populations are still thriving in the Kanawha River between Kanawha Falls and Deepwater, in most of the Elk River, in the Little Kanawha River and in Middle Island Creek.
“Mussels are like the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “Old-time coal miners used to take a canary in a cage into the mines. When the canary started having problems, they knew it was time to get out of the mine quick, because the air was going bad.
“The presence of mussels tells us the rivers they live in are healthy. If you’re not seeing the mussels, or if they’re starting to decline, something is wrong. I wish the general public and the powers that be could understand that.”