CMU biologists discover endangered species, postpone dam construction

Removal of a Grand River dam has been postponed after Central Michigan University biologists discovered a number of endangered snuffbox mussels.

The group, which included 10 students, was hired by the Ionia Conservation District to survey how many endangered mussels there were near the Grand River dam, located near Lyons.

“I have hired a series of students, three graduate students and seven undergraduate students,” said assistant professor of biology Daelyn Woolnough. “We’ve been doing snorkeling and scuba diving and digging to try to determine what mussels are there.”

Woolnough was recommended for the project because of her expertise on the topic.

“Daelyn was referred to us by the fisheries division of the DNR,” said Melissa Eldridge, the Ionia Conservation District manager. “So we started speaking with her and got her involved so she could do the surveying and the actual relocation.”

Woolnough had been working in the area a few years ago when she had found one of these endangered mussels, leading to further investigation.

“Three years ago, I was in Lyons doing some fishery stuff with some DNR colleagues and I found one live snuffbox mussel,” she said. “So we knew there could be more.”

To find these mussels, the CMU biologists had to do some digging in the bottom of the river. Working for around a month and a half, Woolnough and graduate student Shaughn Barnett made their final trip to the river last week.

The Colorado Springs graduate student helped by tagging the mussels and said he feels the discovery is important.

“Native mussels are extremely important and unfortunately have become imperiled for a variety of reasons,” Barnett said. “It is essential to maintain ecosystems that (the mussels) can be a part of. I hope that our conclusions will be used in a beneficial way when the decision-making process determines the fate of Lyons Dam.”

More than 50 snuffbox mussels of varying sex and size have been found in the river. Woolnaugh said  this discovery is very encouraging.

“This means they’re reproducing,” Woolnough said. “We can’t say it’s the best, but it’s one of the best populations in North America. It’s like the equivalent of finding a whole bunch of bald eagles when it was endangered, now we find more because of the conservation of that species.”

In addition to the snuffbox, they found 20 other mussel species including the lilliput mussel and the black sandshell mussel, which are both endangered in the state of Michigan.

Before the dam is removed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision on what will happen to the mussels. To keep track of these mussels once they’re relocated, the biologists have implemented a tagging system.

“For every mussel that we have found, which are state or federally endangered, we’ve put a label on them so we know they’re endangered,” Woolnough said. “It’s almost like a microchip, called a PIT tag, where we can take a device like a metal detector and find them again.”

Woolnough is hopeful the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will pick her group to help relocate the mussels, but it’s not guaranteed that they will be picked.

She said this particular discovery is a significant step for the future of this species, adding that to raise the species above the threatened level, more work with the species must be done. However, many factors hold the mussel populations back from growing.

“Not only dams, but agriculture, climate change, urban development, changes in the rivers, water quality issues, all of these things are affecting the mussels,” Woolnough said. “They can’t swim or fly away either. They just stay in one area.”

As for the removal of the dam, it remains postponed in lieu of raised water levels and a pending decision by the Ionia Conservation District.

“With the endangered species, we had to do a little more survey work on relocation and rework some of the original plans,” Eldridge said. “We still have construction plans for low water time, which happens around August or the first of September. That will happen in 2014, so we’re right on track.”


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