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Endangered species law keeps promise to America’s children

On Earth Day we may recall some area schoolchildren’s action on behalf of a Nolichucky River mussel, almost two decades ago.
In eight years of surveying the Appalachian elktoe mussel’s earlier haunts in the river, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had found fewer than 10 live individuals.
In February 1994, it proposed to seek the mussel’s listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Perhaps from a sense of empathy for a creature that had been a dweller in “their” river, 31 fifth-graders from Chuckey Elementary School sent penciled letters to the Service, pleading the mussel “get some help.”
Perhaps with a faint recognition of the mussel’s beauty and uniqueness as well, its mysterious life cycle and potential consequences for medicine or other human needs should it be lost, the children urged that “someone” make sure elktoe mussels will be around for people to see them, “anytime that they want to,” into the future.
Like a Christmas gift to these “activist” children, the Johnson City Press on Dec. 25 that year published notice that federal listing of the Appalachian elktoe had just been accomplished.
The Service has reported encouraging signs of its expansion in the river’s upper reaches since then. This mussel’s prospects are further strengthened through stream-restoration actions made possible with funds, recently, from the 2009 Recovery Act.
By the year 2005, when the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency published its latest tabulation of native Species of Greatest Conservation Need, 36 Tennessee mussels had been listed under the federal law.
In March this year, two more, with quaint names of sheepnose and spectaclecase, received listing. Abundant in the larger (Clinch, Powell, Holston, French Broad and Tennessee) rivers in earlier times, these two also are now very rare within the state and vulnerable to extinction.
For “Promoting Useful Knowledge,” the American Philosophical Society in 1918 commissioned a complete survey of mussel species in the upper Tennessee river drainage, “from Chattanooga, Tenn., upward comprising largely eastern Tennessee.”
Noting this region to be the most prolific section of the world in mussel development, the surveyor, Dr. A. E. Ortmann, described 93 species.
The remarkable mussel richness in the east Tennessee region, he thought, was “surely in large part due to the comparatively old age of this river system.”
Yet factors were at work even then through which 53 of all 130 mussel species which Tennessee children at that time could see have been lost from our waters.
Ortmann noted mussels’ slow, but steady diminishment through stream pollution.
And the building of dams, “for water power, etc., for instance in Nolichucky River near Greeneville, Tenn.,” he noted, was having a “deteriorating effect upon mussel life.” It would doom many species in years thereafter, when the Tennessee River system would practically be staircased with giant dams.
Ortmann expressed a fear that East Tennessee’s world-class mussel fauna would “largely become destroyed.”
Thanks to the endangered species law, an Earth Day gift and promise to America’s children now and in the future, this has been averted.