Threatened Texas Mussel May Spark Conflict Over Contested Waterways


Photo: Matthew Venn

The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed the Texas hornshell mussel be classified as endangered, opening a new avenue for conflict over already highly-contested water systems throughout the state. The mussel is one of a dozen the USFWS is examining for endangered list inclusion, and if chosen, the mussel’s freshwater river habitats would be specially protected from heavy human usage.

If the species is listed, other mussels may be included as well. “This move provides insight into their thinking” on the remaining species, said Charles Randklev, a mussel expert at Texas A&M University’s Institute for Renewable Natural Resources. The hornshell “warrants some level of protection based on the data I’ve seen,” he said, “and some of the species are not faring as well as the hornshell.” These others include mussel species living in Central Texas’  Colorado, Guadalupe and Brazos river basins in Central Texas, such as the false spike and the Texas pimpleback.

Human activity is to blame for disruption of the mussels’ populations, says the USFWS, through creation of dams and increasingly poor water quality that hurt the Texas hornshell and other Southwest freshwater mussels. “The waterways they call home are being altered and impacted by declining water quality and quantity,” Benjamin Tuggle, the USFWS’s Southwest regional director, reported. “Declining freshwater mussel populations are signs of an unhealthy aquatic system, which has negative implications for the fish, wildlife and communities that depend upon those rivers and streams.”

However, protections bestowed in the best interests of the mussels will have vast impacts on the already much-disputed distribution of water to industries, farmers, and Texas’ growing cities by state river authorities. “With increased human demand, the question is how that affects stream flows,” Randklev said.

Despite Tuggle’s statement that he hopes to work closely with landowners “to benefit both the species and communities that rely upon those flowing waters”, a legal fight between federal and state officials seems likely if the mussel is listed. The state comptroller’s office has commissioned research into how increased habitat protections would harm Texas’ economy. “We’re still examining the proposal, and we also need to look at the species status assessment report,” comptroller spokesman Chris Bryan said.

Once plentiful (and a staple of indigenous peoples), the Texas hornshell mussel is a filter feeder that can grow up to 4 inches long and live around 20 years. This species has vastly declined within the past few decades, according to the Federal Register. The mussels are technically edible but are not considered safe to eat where water is polluted. The mollusk habitates within the Rio Grande downstream from Big Bend National Park and Laredo, as well as in the Pecos and the Devils rivers in Val Verde County.

The Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have already begun efforts to maintain this and other threatened river species, taking measures to reduce sediment and contaminants on protected land near the Devils River watershed. In addition, Lower Colorado River Authority and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority officials are monitoring the addition of any Texas waterway species to the endangered list. “At this point it’s premature to say whether or how future listings may impact the lower Colorado River basin,” LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said. Only time will tell how this potential conflict will play out if the mussel is listed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will be taking comments from the public regarding the proposed endangered species listing of the Texas hornshell mussel until Oct. 11 before they come to a decision.


Photo: David O.

Source: Price, Asher. “Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways.” My Statesman. 10 August 2016.

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