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More action needed to protect mussels

Posted on: March 24th, 2022
by David Ganje

From South Dakota News Watch 3/23/2022

Since Faltys’ study was published, the state’s only specific action to protect freshwater mussels has been a 2020 state administrative rule that bans commercial and noncommercial harvesting of freshwater mussels. State regulations allow people to pick up empty mussel shells, but not those of endangered or threatened species.

Chelsey Pasbrig, a GFP aquatic biologist, said in an email that her agency is concerned about the decline of freshwater mussel populations in South Dakota, and it is aware they are among the most endangered animals in North America.

“GFP has begun collaborations with other states to explore the option for augmenting populations with propagated individuals; however, this is in its infancy” she wrote. “Kaylee Faltys’ study provided us a snapshot of the status of freshwater mussels in South Dakota; however, future research and monitoring is likely needed.”

Pasbrig added that no current mussel monitoring efforts are underway in South Dakota.

“Unfortunately, the professor at SDSU who could assist with this expertise is since retired, therefore future monitoring and research efforts have not continued at this time. There are endless questions that exist regarding the status of freshwater mussels in S.D. and across the country; however, limited resources both financially and staffing exist,” she wrote.

Since at least 1995, the GFP also has sponsored mussel research by a retired University of Sioux Falls faculty member and a retired departmental wildlife biologist, among others.

Pasbrig says the department currently addresses water quality issues that may be contributing to decreased mussel abundance and diversity through the Conservation Reserve Program, the James River and Big Sioux River Conservation Reserve Enhancement programs, the EPA 319 non-point source watershed projects and riparian buffer programs. The state agency also recently expanded its private lands habitat program and aquatic habitat program, which partner with landowners and other conservation entities to improve habitat, Pasbrig says.

GFP did not respond to follow-up questions asking for figures on the net numbers of additional landowners and acres in the expanded private lands habitat and aquatic habitat programs. A request for the number of stream miles of riparian buffers created in the last several years also was not answered, but previous reporting by News Watch has showed that state efforts to encourage implementation of agricultural buffer strips has been extremely slow to catch on.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on its role in monitoring and protecting freshwater mussels in South Dakota at this time.

Faltys and others have called for further research and monitoring of freshwater mussel populations in South Dakota.

“Our research … suggests that the statewide unionid structure is changing quickly, thus adequate conservation strategies are needed for the future survival of this group,” Faltys said.

Biske, of the Nature Conservancy, agrees that “more can be done” in South Dakota to monitor and conserve existing freshwater mussel populations

But under the two major federal acts pertaining to water, the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, individual and groups of South Dakotans do not have the right to take legal action against ag-related nonpoint source polluters, says David Ganje an Aberdeen native who practices natural resource and commercial law in South Dakota.

However, when endangered species are involved, government entities have the right to intervene to protect the endangered species, although this is rarely done, he said.

Individual states do have the power to regulate non-point source pollution and protect wildlife, should their policymakers choose to do so. South Dakota law states that both South Dakota’s waters and wildlife are the property of all South Dakota residents.

Ganje points to Wisconsin as a state that manages non-point source pollution well, with a published 5-year, 110-page plan. Wisconsin’s approach results in better surface water quality, despite intensive farming and industrial activity. Its most recent report states that 83% of its waters are healthy, 13% are impaired and 4% are being restored. South Dakota’s corresponding numbers are almost reversed: 78% of stream-miles are impaired in some way, while only 22% are healthy. Lake acres are 85% impaired and only 9% healthy.

Wisconsin also has a strategy to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen pollution from fertilizer applications.

“If over time those parties in society [agricultural, manufacturing, construction industries] are put in the limelight, invited to meetings, having the DENR/DANR sit down with them and say ‘What can we do as a group? What should we do? These numbers are getting worse and worse and worse.’ You know, there might even be some press that shows up to some of those meetings. That’s how you change this stuff,” Ganje said.