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Quest to protect endangered crayfish turns up new species

Environmental activists say the main threat to the two crayfish is mountaintop coal removal.

By Brooks Hays
Quest to protect endangered crayfish turns up new species
A Big Sandy crayfish specimen. Photo by Zachary Loughman/West Liberty University/FWS

ATLANTA, April 10 (UPI) -- In 2010, conservationists at the Center for Biological Diversity lobbied the federal government to protect an endangered Appalachian crayfish species found in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

What they didn't realize was that the Big Sandy crayfish was actually two different species. Five years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is acting on the petition, proposing to protect both the Big Sandy and the newly identified Guyandotte River crayfish.

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In detailing the DNA and morphological differences between the two species, scientists realized that not only were the newly divergent species vulnerable, one was likely critically endangered. The Guyandotte River crayfish -- which retained the original scientific name (Cambarus veteranus), while Big Sandy got a new moniker (C. callainus) -- could only be found in a single location in West Virginia.

"We are concerned about the future of both species," Cindy Dohner, director of the FWS Southeast Region, said in a recent press release. "We base our decisions on the best available science, so we are asking people who may have information about the condition of these crayfishes to contact us to help us make the right decision about their status."

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The announcement follows a year of fact-finding by FWS biologists. The proposal was published this week in the Federal Registrar.

"After review of the best available scientific and commercial information, we find that listing the Big Sandy crayfish and the Guyandotte River crayfish is warranted," the newly proposed rule reads.

Environmental activists say the main threat to the two crayfish is mountaintop coal removal, but FWS officials cite a wider range of contributing factors.

Research by state agencies suggests the majority of streams hosting Big Sandy crayfish are heavily polluted -- many testing positive for feces, bacteria, selenium, E. coli and contaminants from mining, logging, sewage runoff and commercial development.

The proposal will remain open for public comments through June 8, after which officials will make a final decision.

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