A freshwater mussel species last seen in the wild in the Kanawha River below Kanawha Falls is among 23 animals and one plant the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed on Wednesday to be removed from the federal endangered species list and officially declared extinct.
Among other animals now deemed to be extinct are the ivory-billed woodpecker, once the nation’s largest woodpecker species, and the Bachman warbler, one of the rarest songbird species in North America, last documented in the U.S. in 1962, followed by a final confirmed sighting in Cuba in 1981.
Numerous sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker have been reported in recent decades, including a cluster that occurred in 2005 in the wetlands of Arkansas, prompting former Interior Secretary Gale Norton to declare the bird “now found to be in existence” after being considered extinct. But according to the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement on Wednesday, the last commonly agreed-upon sighting of the bird took place near Louisiana’s Tensas River in 1944.
Extinction status was also sought for 11 bird and one plant species once found in Hawaii or the U.S. territory of Guam, and eight freshwater mussel species, including the tubercled-blossom pearly mussel, last documented in 1969 when a single specimen turned up in a survey below Kanawha Falls.
The tubercled-blossom pearly mussel “was once quite abundant throughout all the major rivers of the eastern U.S. and southern Ontario,” and “particularly numerous in the Ohio River Valley,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition to West Virginia, the mussel’s range extended into the larger rivers of Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Alabama.
The mussel, named for the rounded ridges protruding from the top of its yellowish-green elliptical shell, was declared eligible for Endangered Species Act protection in 1976. A recovery plan called for placing any future specimens that might be found in a protected section of the Tennessee River in Alabama to re-establish a breeding population.
Unfortunately, subsequent surveys, including one conducted by divers at Kanawha Falls in the early 1980s, turned up no more members of the species.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, freshwater mollusks are the most endangered group of organisms in the nation, with 36 species of mussels already declared extinct, along with more than 70 species of freshwater snails.
Factors contributing to the demise of the tubercled-blossom pearly mussel include increased siltation from mining and deforestation, and the abundance of navigation and flood control dams in host rivers.
For the 23 species recommended to be declared extinct, “the protections of the Endangered Species Act came too late, with most either extinct, functionally extinct or in steep decline at the time of listing,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“With climate change and natural area loss pushing more species to the brink, now is the time to lift up proactive, collaborative and innovative efforts to save America’s wildlife,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said during Wednesday’s announcement. “The Endangered Species Act has been incredibly effective at preventing species from going extinct and has also inspired action to conserve at-risk species and their habitat before they need to be listed.”
Less than 1% of species listed for Endangered Species Act protection have become extinct, according to Haaland. So far, 54 species have been delisted due to recovery, she said, while another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened status.
In response to Wednesday’s announcement, the Center for Biological Diversity urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to speed up an “exceedingly slow” process, involving a median of 12 years, to receive Endangered Species Act protection. At least 47 species have gone extinct waiting for federal protection, according to the nonprofit conservation organization.
Official extinction status for the 23 endangered species listed in Wednesday’s announcement would follow a public comment period that ends on Nov. 29.