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446 miles of streams in three states designated as key habitat for imperiled crayfish

Big Sandy crayfish

The Big Sandy crayfish (above), listed as threatened, now exists in less than 40 percent of its former range. The Guyandotte River crayfish (not pictured), listed as endangered, has disappeared from 90 percent of its former known range, and is now limited to two Wyoming County Guyandotte tributaries.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday announced plans to focus conservation efforts for the recovery of two imperiled crayfish species on 210 miles of streams in the southern coalfields of West Virginia and 236 stream miles in adjoining sections of Kentucky and Virginia.

The stream segments have been designated as critical habitat for the Guyandotte River crayfish and the Big Sandy crayfish, both granted protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2016.

The Guyandotte River crayfish, listed as endangered, has disappeared from 90 percent of its former known range, and is now limited to two Wyoming County Guyandotte tributaries. The Big Sandy crayfish, listed as threatened, now exists in less than 40 percent of its former range, mainly in the Tug Fork watershed in West Virginia and in the Russell Fork and Levisa Fork drainages in Virginia and Kentucky.

The critical habitat designation requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service be consulted before any land- or water-disturbing activity regulated or funded by the federal government moves forward.

Monday’s proposed critical habitat designation follows a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2018, after the USFWS failed to determine the critical habitat requirements of the crayfish species during the specified period of time following Endangered Species Act protection.

“These protections throw a lifeline to these rapidly vanishing crayfish, which are being snuffed out by coal mining pollution,” said Perrin de Jong, a staff attorney for the Center, following Monday’s announcement by the USFWS. “Protecting the habitat of these unique species will not only help prevent their extinction, but safeguard water quality for people, too.”

According to the USFWS proposal, scheduled to be published in Tuesday’s Congressional Record, the agency “is working with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the coal industry to develop protection and enhancement plans for coal mining permits in areas that may affect designated recovery streams.”

USFWS also plans to work with the Hatfield-McCoy trails system and the Federal Highway Administration to minimize off-road vehicle use adjacent to the crayfish streams or in their tributaries.

While all land- and water-disturbing activities adjacent to the designated streams involving federal funding or permits will require pre-work consultations with the agency, the costs of the consults are expected “to be largely administrative,” according to the USFWS.

While all stream miles designated as critical habitat for the Big Sandy crayfish involve segments of creeks and rivers known to currently host populations of the species, 42 miles of stream not currently providing habitat for the Guyandotte River crayfish were added to the 41 miles of Wyoming County streams that do host the endangered crustacean. The additional stream miles have features contained at existing population sites and were added to enhance recovery prospects.

Consultations for two large surface mines, one active and one planned, in the vicinity of the Guyandotte River crayfish’s designated habitat streams “are estimated not to exceed $60,000 per year,” according to the habitat plan. The cost of all consultations with the USFWS in all three states “is not expected to exceed $920,000 per year,” according to the document.

The crayfish species’ decline is the result of habitat loss, stream sedimentation and other forms of water pollution “largely due to mountaintop removal and other forms of coal mining,” according to statement issued by the Center on Monday.

The critical habitat designation does not allow government employees or members of the public to enter private lands. It also does not require nonfederal landowners to restore habitat or recover imperiled species.

According to the USFWS, the designation does raise awareness about the needs of the listed species, and enables a recovery strategy focusing on collaborative partnerships between state, local and federal agencies, landowners, businesses and others.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow

@rsteelhammer on Twitter.