The yellow lance's population range has declined 57 percent in recent years, prompting federal regulators to propose designating it as threatened

RALEIGH -- A freshwater mussel native to North Carolina could soon be designated as a threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal agency has proposed the yellow lance mussel, which is found in the Neuse and Tar river basins, be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. A threatened species is one that could become endangered -- or at risk of extinction -- in the near future.

Fish and Wildlife research indicates the yellow lance mussel's range has declined 57 percent. In a release, the service attributed much of the decline to human impacts, such as sewage, runoff and dams.

Greg Cope, a N.C. State ecologist, echoed the service's finding that humans have had a significant impact on the bright yellow mussels, which are typically found buried in the sand in rivers and streams as far north as Maryland.

"Mussels have really taken it hard because of all the development that we've undergone here in this state," Cope said. "Development brings a lot more human activity on the landscape and stormwater and runoff and the pollution issues associated with that."

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has not yet formally reviewed the federal proposal, said Todd Ewing, the supervisor of the state agency's Aquatic Wildlife Diversity Program. In North Carolina, the mussel is found as far east as Edgecombe and Wayne counties.

"The Tar River Basin has less development in it, and the Tar River Basin actually contains some of the best remaining populations of the species," Ewing said.

In 2014, the wildlife commission started working with N.C. State University to raise mussels in hatcheries. The agency is still working, Ewing said, on finding a way to scale its efforts up.

Yellow lances were first identified as potentially needing protection in 1991.

Cope, the N.C. State ecologist, has done significant research involving mussels, including several projects involving the yellow lance. 

In one study, he worked with the N.C. Department of Transportation to investigate how mussels are impacted by metals from gradually degrading catalytic converters that wash off of roads and into streams. The chemicals were found in mussel tissue.

"Mussels are kind of like nature's canary in a coal mine," Cope said, "and you see them accumulating a lot of things because ... they're taking up everything we put into the water column and the sediments."

Should the federal review determine the mussel merits protection, according to the FWS release, the next step would be to develop a recovery plan for the species. In the yellow lance's case, that plan could include water management efforts, but likely not livestock grazing or energy development.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.