FRANKFORT – A collaborative effort between the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service placed three endangered species of freshwater mussels into the Big South Fork of Cumberland River on Wednesday (Aug. 12).
More than 100 juvenile mussels comprised of three species, the Cumberlandian combshell, the tan riffleshell and the littlewing pearlymussel, now live in a shoal upstream of Blue Heron in the Kentucky section of the Big South Fork. All three species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“One of the last places on Earth they survive is right behind me,” said Monte McGregor, mussel biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, while standing on the banks of the shoal. “These are the rarest of the rare.”
McGregor and his team raised these mussels at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Center for Mollusk Conservation in Frankfort from broodstock collected from that site on the Big South Fork in 2013. These three species currently reproduce in low numbers in the river. This effort helps bolster those wild populations.
All of the released mussels have a small tag on them for identification and further monitoring. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is a refuge for 11 species of freshwater mussels on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered Species List.
“The Big South Fork is the last place you can actually find the littlewing pearlymussel,” said Leroy Koch, senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an authority on freshwater mussels. “If we lose them here, we’ve likely lost them for good.”
The Center for Mollusk Conservation reintroduced four other endangered mussel species in the Big South Fork including the dromedary pearlymussel, the spectaclecase, the fluted kidneyshell and the oyster mussel over the past several years.