The Guyandotte River crayfish (Cambarus veteranus) as well as the Big Sandy crayfish (Cambarus callainus) have disappeared from many of the streams they once occupied in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Ongoing erosion, sedimentation, and reduced water quality are the primary causes of the species’ declines, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Crayfish are freshwater crustaceans that resemble small lobsters and are also known as crawfish, crawdads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, and mudbugs.
“It lives along the Guyandotte watershed – up into Rhodell and the tributaries that make up the Guyandotte, down through Wyoming County, up the Slab Fork into Raleigh County, along the Clear Fork, down river to Williamson, to Logan, probably more in the tributaries than the actual Guyandotte,” explained Sen. David “Bugs” Stover, who is an environmentalist and naturalist.
“They are different colors, but basically green, bluish, some red and they may be three to five inches – four inches more likely – in length for the adults,” Stover said.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Guyandotte River crayfish as endangered and the Big Sandy crayfish as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity.
More than 440 stream miles of critical habitat has now been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect both species in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.
The habitat designation is the next step required by the Endangered Species Act and is essential for the species’ survival.
“Keeping streams healthy for crayfish benefits people by ensuring clean water for drinking, swimming, wading, and fishing,” according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.
Healthy crayfish populations also help recycle animal and plant matter as well as serve as food for other wildlife, including sport fish, birds, reptiles, among others.
“Critical habitat helps focus conservation efforts where they are needed most,” said Wendi Weber, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North Atlantic-Appalachian regional director.
“By working with our state, federal and non-governmental partners to maintain and improve the health of the watersheds in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins, we can help conserve and recover the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfishes for future generations,” she said.
The Guyandotte River crayfish was once found in six stream systems across the Upper Guyandotte River Basin, but has now lost more than 90 percent of its range, according to a story by Targeted News Service.
At the time of the endangered listing in 2016, it was determined that the species persisted along 42 miles of two streams in Wyoming County.
The 42 miles in Wyoming County are not sufficient for conservation of the species, according to the press release. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated an additional 42 stream miles extending to both Wyoming and Logan counties.
The Big Sandy crayfish persists in less than 40 percent of the streams in which it once likely lived, according to the press release. Designating those remaining streams as critical habitat, a total of 362 stream miles, helps focus conservation actions. These streams are located in Martin and Pike counties, Kentucky; Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties, Virginia; and McDowell, Mingo and Wayne counties, West Virginia.
One critical habitat unit – made up of five subunits – has been designated for the Guyandotte River crayfish. The subunits include Pinnacle Creek, Clear Fork and its primary tributary Laurel Fork, Indian Creek, and Huff Creek.
The designated area may require special management considerations or protection to address threats from resource extraction, such as coal mining, timber harvesting, and oil and gas development, road construction and maintenance of unpaved roads and trails, in-stream dredging, construction projects, and other pollution sources such as spills.
Recent surveys of Pinnacle Creek confirmed the presence of the Guyandotte River crayfish in at least five sites in the upper portion of the stream, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Surveys of Clear Fork and Laurel Fork confirmed the crayfish at six sites.
The crayfish were last collected from the Huff Creek subunit area in 1989.
Specimens were last collected from the Indian Creek subunit in 1947.
The streams designated as critical habitat are considered state waters, and adjacent land is owned by a combination of federal, state, and private landowners.
The critical habitat designation does not affect adjacent landowner activities unless those activities involve federal funding or federal permits and impact designated streams, according to officials.
Critical habitat designation does not establish a wildlife refuge, allow the government or public to access private lands, or require non-federal landowners to restore habitat or recover species.
Streams can be kept healthy for crayfish and other wildlife by implementing the following U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommendations:
• Drive ATVs and vehicles only on designated trails and not through or in streams.
• Do not dump chemicals into streams.
• Report chemical spills to state environmental protection agencies.
• During timber harvest, construction, or other projects implement best management practices for sediment and erosion control per state-agency guidance.
• Start a watershed group or assist in stream- and water-quality monitoring efforts.
• Plant trees and other native woody vegetation along stream banks to help restore and preserve water quality.
Crayfish conservation partners include the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves, Kentucky Division of Water, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, West Liberty University, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Highways, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, West Virginia Coal Association, and the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Authority.
Private landowners can request technical and financial assistance for Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfish conservation through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.