Crayfish study could mean habitat improvement in coalfields

WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. — A pair of crawdads are causing a commotion in some southern West Virginia watersheds. Biologists discovered two species of crayfish more than a year ago, one endangered and another on the threatened species list, are endemic to those Appalachian waters.

The Big Sandy River Crayfish is found in a region which encompasses parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.  However, the Guyandotte River Crayfish are even more rare.  Zach Loughman of West Liberty University is a foremost authority on crayfish in West Virginia and says the Guyandotte Crayfish is extremely exceptional species.

The Guyandotte Crayfish, found exclusively in the Clear Fork and Pinnacle Creek watersheds in southern West Virginia.

“It is as unique to West Virginia as you can get because that’s the only place on planet Earth you find it,” explained Loughman in a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors. “It is only known to occur in two streams, Pinnacle Creek and the Clear Fork watershed, both in Wyoming County.”

It was originally believed the two species were the same.  However, genetics of the two species of crayfish were discovered to be different as biologists kept looking deeper into those waters.They were originally listed on the endangered species list more than a year ago.  Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was targeted in a lawsuit by environmental groups seeking  additional protections.

“These two crayfish were initially considered the same species,” said Dave Thorne, head of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Trout Program. “When they did the investigation it turned out they were two distinct species and that caused their ranges to be much more limited and that’s how the listing came about.”

The streams in the southern coalfields are unique. They are not traditional trout waters in the sense of West Virginia’s high mountain streams, but the cold flows from the old mine works in the region provide perfect water temperatures and the water quality is perfect for trout. But the listing of the crayfish created a dilemma for Thorne and the West Virginia DNR trout program. The agency could not stock trout if those fish were going to prey on the endangered crayfish.

“Nobody wanted to stop stocking the fish, because it’s a great recreational opportunity,” said Thorne. “So we got a variance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

The variance allowed for the stocking of rainbow trout to continue, but the state halted the stocking brown trout. Thorne and his team did a preliminary study which revealed rainbow trout fed mainly on the surface, but showed brown trout were eating some crayfish. The stocking adjustment was made, but the DNR contracted Loughman and his students to do more extensive work.

“We’re really interested to see how these animals stocked are impacting the crayfish,” Loughman explained. “We don’t want to be putting animals into the streams that will further the extirpation of these imperiled species.”

West Liberty University graduate student Riley Aulick, with a smallmouth bass fitted with a transmitter. The fish will be monitored for movement and feeding habits to determine it’s impact on crayfish in the watershed

So Loughman’s West Liberty graduate students are in the process of monitoring the movements of brown trout, rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass in the watershed. The research also involves monitoring the appetites of the three species. So far, according to Loughman, research has shown Thorne’s preliminary conclusions hold up and he added as most anglers know, the smallmouth have a voracious appetite for crayfish.

“Initial results showed rainbow trout were eating things on the surface. The smallmouth bass were, as everybody knows feeding heavily on the crayfish,” said Loughman. “It also showed the brown trout are eating some crayfish–and mainly eating them at night. We have the smaller study and we need to back it up with the larger study.”

The goal with a species on the endangered or threatened species list is to work to create an environment where it can be removed from the list. While predation is one cause of the demise for the two crayfish–habitat is the other. Years of sedimentation have limited the waters where the the two crayfish are found. Although the research is still unfolding, Loughman has a pretty good idea at this point where the data is leading and already has a preliminary strategy to turn the tide.

He explained it’s a strategy which will be mutually beneficial to all species concerned.

“As part of the process you can build habitat,” he explained. “It just so happens the exact habitat the crayfish prefers, is the habitat created when you put in trout weirs or drop logs across the stream to create riffle habitat.”

The riffle habitat creates a more productive environment for the crayfish, for the trout, and enables the reduction of sedimentation. Loughman said once they have established the predator-prey relationship, and if it holds in the end of the study the way it appears now, restoring old trout streams in the upper reaches of coalfield watershed will probably be the answer.

“We can start restoring these streams which historically had the crayfish and we can literally in the process of restoring the streams turn them into trout streams in the process,” Loughman said.

Paying for that work would be another obstacle, but West Virginia has become creative in formulating funding for such projects. The Division of Natural Resources has done restoration work on trout habitat in a number of high mountain streams in the state. The agency has learned the process through years of mitigation and repair. They have become good at it.

Since the process calls for protecting an endangered or threatened species, the work would also be able to tap into different streams of funding from Washington which wouldn’t be available if the work was simply to restore fish habitat. When you can prove you’re

The Big Sandy Crayfish, one of the two species found in the coalfields which are in peril

restoring habitat for an endangered species, it’s an entirely different set of circumstances. The resulting benefits to other species, are a bonus.

The state also has experience in the area of maximizing grant dollars for multi-species benefit. . Money is available for restoration of habitat for certain song birds. Turns out, the habitat they need also creates habitat needed by wild turkeys, grouse, deer, and other animals. It’s the same kind of conservation bonus.

“When we get our money to raise and stock the fish, if we’re using federal dollars we have to determine if there is an impact on the endangered species list,” said Thorne. “We absolutely have to know that and if we’re having an impact on them as an agency we’re in violation of the endangered species act.”

Although the answer may turn out to be yes, the result could become a huge win not only for the imperiled crayfish–but for a large number of streams in southern West Virginia.

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