Proposed critical habitat designation for endangered mussels should be limited, groups say


LITTLE ROCK — A federal proposal to designate more than 40 percent of Arkansas as a critical habitat for the protection of two fresh-water mussels is drawing criticism from state elected officials and a variety of private and public sector organizations.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who earlier this year led a successful fight to remove a National Blueway designation from the White River, plans to hold a legislative committee meeting later this month to learn more about the proposal and find out why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not hold any public meetings in the areas that would be affected.

“It’s very similar to the Blueway designation,” Irvin said last week, noting that the public was unaware of that federal program until after it was awarded to the White River.

Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, said the National Blueway designation was “kids play” compared to the proposed critical habit for mussels.

Under the proposal, nearly 800 river miles in Arkansas, including sections of the Ouachita River and Saline River watersheds in southern Arkansas, the Illinois River watershed in Northwest Arkansas and the watersheds of the White River and a number of its tributaries in northern and northeastern Arkansas, would be designated as critical habitat for the Neosho mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels.

The Neosho Mucket, an endangered species, is found in the Illinois River in Northwest Arkansas, and in rivers and streams in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Rabbitsfoot is a threatened species found in rivers and streams in Arkansas and 14 other states.

About one-third of Arkansas’ property owners would be affected by the designation, which would protect the two mussels under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“What that means is, you as a private property owner, if you want to do something you are placed in the position of trying to prove that whatever you are doing will not result in … harm” to the mussels, said Association of Arkansas Counties Legislative Director Jeff Sikes.

All state, county or city road or bridge projects also would have to meet expanded environmental requirements, Sikes said.

The association and 10 other organizations collectively submitted comments against the proposal to the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the measure is overarching and could hurt the state’s economy.

After paying for independent environmental and economic studies on the proposal, the groups suggested that the critical habitat be limited in scope.

“We believe that we’re putting forth better science. We have hired some local people that know the area, know the state very well, to go out and do studies of what would be critical habitat,” Villines said.

“We’re not trying to go overboard to say that these species are not threatened or endangered,” he said. “We’re just trying to find out what is the real area of impact for them.The potential impact on Arkansas citizens, especially private land owners, city and county roads, Arkansas’ economy, just to name a few, is just too significant to not fully investigate this federal distinction.”

Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce-Associated Industries of Arkansas, said the “direct impact on the economic operation of counties, cities, agricultural operations and many business and industrial operations is potentially very costly.”

Chris Davidson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ endangered species coordinator in Arkansas, said the Neosho mucket classified as an endangered species can only be found in Arkansas in the Illinois River. While the Rabbitsfoot is more is prevalent across the state, it is considered a threatened species.

Davidson said there have been three rounds of public comment periods, the latest ended Oct. 28. All comments made during those periods will be evaluated and a final recommending is expected late this year or early next year, he said.

Cleburne County Judge Jerry Holmes, who like Irvin sees the proposal akin to the National Blueway designation earlier this year, said he “adamantly opposes” the proposal and is considering asking the county quorum court to approve a resolution opposing it.

“This is a much, much bigger animal then the Blueway system had even thought about,” he said.

In January, the National Blueway designation for the White River was announced by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes during an event at the Peabody Hotel. The Blueway designation recognizes and supports regional and local conservation and recreation efforts by local, state and federal groups.

In June, more than 150 people attended a legislative hearing conducted jointly by the House and Senate City, County and Local Affairs committees at the state Capitol to express concern about the designation.

Many said they didn’t know anything about the designation until it was official and they wished public meetings had been held to discuss the proposal. Some also said they feared the designation could lead to people losing their land and more restrictions on the use of water in the watershed.

State wildlife and conservation officials said at the meeting that they supported the designation and did not think it would harm the rights of property owners, but they agreed to ask that the designation be removed.

Holmes supported Irvin’s call for public meetings on the proposed critical habitat for the mussels.

Sikes said the critical habitat proposal is much more invasive and more vast than the Blueway designation because it would hinder almost any project landowners might want to do on their land.

“The Blueway, it’s questionable what real impact it had,” Sikes said. “It may have had some on private property, but there is no doubt … it’s going to have a huge impact. So, the people who were worried over the Blueway … this is what they need to be afraid of. This does all the things that they were worried about.”

Sikes said the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the the first of many expected over the next five years.

He said the Center for Biological Diversity struck a legal settlement with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 which required the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of species of plants and animals to the endangered species list.

In the the southeastern United States, the agency must consider 346 species, of which 46 are in Arkansas.

“Forty-four more we’ve got to go through over the next few years,” Sikes said.