By Adam McCully

Since 1932, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) has been protecting Pennsylvania’s most prized resource: its inherent natural beauty. Chances are that you’ve seen the fruits of their labor yourself, though you may not have realized it. Whether you’ve already enjoyed the clear streams, lush forests, and abundant wildlife found in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region, or you’re simply planning on it, you should know that the WPC has played a major part in restoring and maintaining the waterways and forestlands of Western Pennsylvania.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that Pennsylvania – and Western Pennsylvania especially – were notorious for a different kind of landscape. Forests that are now green and vibrant were once clear cut and barren. Clear water streams and rivers that provide an abundance of recreational opportunities today, used to run black with industrial runoff and other pollutants.

As a famous coal miner’s daughter once sang, “We’ve come a long way, baby,” and while we’ve still got a long way to go, the efforts put forth by groups like the WPC – as well as many conservation minded individuals – are becoming more and more apparent. From the latter part of the 20th century onward, life has been returning to the forests and waterways of Western PA. What’s even more encouraging is the fact the conservancy education is spreading throughout the community, and conservation efforts are being practiced not only by conservation groups like the WPC, but all kinds of businesses and organizations. Today, more and more people are making a conscious effort to protect the environment and preserve the natural landscape found within our state.

Take, for instance, the Hunters Station Bridge in Tionesta. This particular bridge, was in dire need of repair. How dire? Remember the final scene in Temple of Doom when Indiana Jones, Data from The Goonies, and Steven Spielberg’s ex-wife were all running away from the bad guys and the bridge collapsed and half the bad guys fell screaming into crocodile infested waters below while Indy and his compatriots clung desperately to the rotting wooden planks? Well not that bad, but in a few more years who knows what kind of state it would have been in. Point is, it was bad enough that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) deemed a repair necessary.

But this is a bridge. A man-made object. Restoring a dilapidated old bridge doesn’t really fall into the same gambit as natural conservancy, right? Well, yes and no, and this is where the story gets really interesting. Years and years ago, whatever organization became responsible for repairing the bridge would’ve assessed the cost, how the repairs would affect traffic into and out of the neighboring communities, and little else. The trouble with that is, repairing a bridge is a major project, and it creates a major disturbance not just for people, but also for the animals, plant life, and the waterways around the bridge.

Thankfully, the organization in charge of this bridge repair, PennDOT, is conservation minded, and they knew that an environmental assessment would be necessary before moving forward. It wasn’t long before these efforts were justified, as seven different federally endangered mussel species were found directly within the impact zone that would be created by the Hunter’s Station bridge repair. In accordance with the laws set in place by the Endangered Species act of 1973, these mussels had to be relocated before any work could commence on the bridge.

What happened next was truly inspiring as a coordinated effort between PennDOT, the PA Fish & Boat Commission, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the WPC, EnviroScience Inc., the Seneca Nation of Indians, and several other conservancy organizations from across the United States joined forces to relocate 125,000 federally endangered mussels from the Hunter’s Station bridge to different waterways throughout the country.

This was truly an unprecedented effort, as no other mussel relocation project in the United States to date has come close to these numbers. Fifteen divers clocked in over 4,000 hours of dive time over two summers, scouring the bottom of the Allegheny for mussels, scooping them up, tagging them, and packing them away (literally in some cases as Fed Ex and coolers were used to transport some of the mussels). If you’ve ever had the opportunity to go scuba diving, you know it can be a lot of fun. You also know that after your hour or two are up, you’re pretty much exhausted. Now imagine doing that for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, for three weeks straight, because that’s what the divers from EnviroScience Inc. and the WPC were doing in order to rescue these mussels.

The amount of federally endangered mussel species found within this relatively small section of the Allegheny River (about 400 meters) is the largest ever recorded. Snuffbox, Sheepnose, Clubshell, and Northern Riffleshell are all freshwater mussel species that are disappearing at an alarming rate throughout the country, and they were all found in abundance near the Hunter’s Station bridge. That, in and of itself, made this an exciting project for conservation minded individuals across the globe. But what about the other mussels? The ones not on the Federally Endangered Species list? One would assume that a concentration of federally endangered mussel species like this would also provide an abundance of non-endangered species as well, which it did. However, moving mussels across state lines in this magnitude requires time and money that, while justifiable for an endangered species, was just not feasible for – for lack of a better term – “common” mussels.

The law required nothing more than a relocation for the common mussels, but it didn’t specify a location. That wasn’t good enough for PennDOT. Their thinking was, if we’re putting forth all this effort to collect both endangered and common mussel species, can’t we do something more beneficial with the common mussels we’ve obtained. That’s when the Director of Aquatic Science at the WPC, Eric Chapman, stepped up.

“Instead of taking the common mussels down to the Ohio River, just to get them off site” (what they were doing) “I suggested that we keep the common mussels in Pennsylvania.”

Eric saw an opportunity to repopulate the northern Clarion River with the common mussel species, something that would never be able to happen naturally.

“We would never have mussels repopulating the Clarion River because of the Piney Dam. Mussels migrate by attaching their larvae to the gills of fish, who then move upstream and deposit the mussels when they grow larger. Since no fish can get past the dam, no new mussel species can move up the Clarion.”

“Without PennDOT going above and beyond what was required by law, the Clarion River would never have any more than the two mussel species that previously lived there.”

Initially, Eric’s idea to move the common mussels into the Clarion River was met with reluctance. In the past, the Clarion River was notorious for its high levels of pollution. Over the years, thanks to efforts from conservation groups like the WPC, it’s been making a rebound, but the bar was set low for this project. The US Fish & Boat Commission and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources gave Chapman the approval for a pilot project. 402 mussels would be moved to ten different locations throughout the Clarion River. The mussels would be tagged and after one year, if there was a survival rate greater than sixty percent then the project would be given the green light. Chapman and the WPC jumped at the opportunity, and – along with the help of conservation minded volunteers – soon they were scooping up the common mussels from the Allegheny, filling up bags, and “tagging” them with super glue and glitter, ensuring not only that they could be identified during the following summer, but that they would look fabulous in their new environment.

Both organizations were astounded to discover that after the one year mark, Chapman and the WPC recorded a survival rate of over ninety-eight percent! Needless to say, the project was approved and to date the WPC has moved over 23,000 mussels into the Clarion River, with plans to move more during the summer of 2017.

Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking. Mussels, clams, oysters, last time I checked they went down pretty good battered and deep-fried, or on the half-shell with a bit of lemon juice. Why is the WPC wasting time and energy rescuing something I can get at Long John Silvers?

First of all, you won’t be dipping any of the mussels on the federally endangered list in marinara anytime soon. At least not without paying a hefty fine. But what about the common mussels?  Can you include those guys in your next surf and turf meal? You sure can. In fact, many species of local wildlife do that on a daily (or nightly) basis, which is just one of the many reasons that mussels play an integral part in a watershed’s ecosystem. Add to the fact that mussels increase biodiversity, add an economic and educational component to whatever waterway they reside in, and provide and invaluable service as Mother Nature’s very own filtration system. Mussels are filter feeders, and they clean up the rivers and streams they live in simply by eating. The Catch-22 of this of course being that the waterway has to be clean enough initially for the mussel to survive in order for the mussel to continue cleaning it.  (How many were moved to Clarion 30K?  I also thought they could filter the volume of the Clarion 4 times a year?)

And that’s really one of the most amazing things about this story. Life is coming back to the Clarion River, and has been for a long time.  River Otter, eagle, and osprey sightings are now common.  The fishing is incredible and Hellbenders were recently found in the Clarion, something that experts would have never thought possible 15 to 20 years ago. At one time, mussels may have thrived in the Clarion River, and their successful re-introduction is just another example of how Pennsylvania is being restored to its natural beauty, one glittery mussel at a time.

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