The Texas hornshell mussel is the last remaining native freshwater mussel in New Mexico and has a small area of habitat in southeast New Mexico in the Black River, a tributary of the Pecos River, in addition to populations in Texas and Mexico.
“We’re very pleased, and it’s none too soon,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a little critter that badly needs the protection of its habitat.”
Heightened salinity and sediment and the construction of reservoirs along its habitat are among the reasons for the species’ decline, according to Fish and Wildlife, and the mussel currently occupies just 15 percent of its historic range.
“For the populations occupying the smaller reaches (such as the Black River …), a single stochastic event such as a contaminant spill or drought could eliminate an entire population of Texas hornshell,” FWS wrote.
FWS estimates that 48,000 mussels live in an 8.7-mile stretch of the Black River.
A population of the mussels was introduced to an area of the Delaware River in southeast New Mexico but was not included in the FWS report.
While the animal’s significance may not be immediately obvious, advocates say they are critical indicators of a waterway’s state.
“Freshwater mussels are bellwethers for the health of entire river ecosystems,” said Taylor Jones, an endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, in a news release. “This is an important step towards protecting and restoring healthy, unfragmented rivers.”
One of the next steps will be to determine critical habitat areas, where additional protections may be warranted and which could include restrictions on livestock grazing and water pumping.
“Oftentimes, it’s not the designation that’s the killer,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “It’s the critical habitat.”
She said she worries that livestock in critical habitat areas may have to be removed or that ranchers in the area will be unable to use the river to water their animals.
Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said many producers in the affected areas voluntarily participated in Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs).
CCAAs, which will be in effect for 30 years in this case, require participants to commit to certain conservation measures with the assurance the landowner will not be subject to additional restrictions or requirements should the species be listed.
McEntyre said the industry believes it was taking enough steps to conserve the mussel’s habitat, but the decision to list it was expected nonetheless.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents much of southern New Mexico, said he is concerned that the listing may harm business in that corner of the state and the state as a whole as a result of decreased energy production.
“I appreciate the work done to develop voluntary conservation agreements between government and local stakeholders, but am disappointed that these efforts were not given a chance to succeed before the listing,” Pearce said in a statement. “I will continue to monitor the recovery process as it moves forward to ensure that local communities and economies are not harmed.”