Swain High Students search for the endangered Appalachian Elktoe Mussel.

Cold water and the threat of rainfall did not stop the Swain High

Environmentally Aware Club from searching for the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel in theTuckasegeeRiver.
On Tuesday, May 17, eleven members of the club traveled upstream of Dillsboro to start their search.  Under the guidance of Gary Peeples, outreachcoordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, they used underwater view scopes to search the river bottom and try to locate the endangered animal.

The original plan was for the club to raft down the river and stop at various points to look for the mussel. With the bad weather, the group searched for mussels once and then rafted straight down to the take out point.
According to Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, “Mussels belong to a group of animals called mollusks, and they look like salt-water clams.  They continuously filter stream water, and in the process they take out silts and clays and contaminants, thus improving water quality. Problems arise when there is too much silt and clay, and these sedentary animals get covered then smothered with sediments, and eventually they die.
The Appalachian elktoe mussel is found only in theTuckasegee River and about four other rivers in the region, according to Clapp. They are sensitive to pollution and habitat disruptions. “These particular mussels act like the ‘canary in the coal mine’, where declining Appalachian elktoe populations strongly suggest stream deterioration.”
Paige Tester, club president, said “I was surprised we found many more shells of the Asian clam than those of the Appalachian elktoe. The Asian clam is an invasive species that should not be here. So we have too many of the non-native kind of mussel and not enough of good mussel.”  She also commented on the bare-soil banks along the parts of the river which contribute unwanted sediment to the creek, probably being one cause of the decline of the Appalachian elktoe.
“There was also the problem of trash in the river; it was everywhere,” said Tester.
For many, the trip was a new adventure.  PJ Sweet said, “It was just fun getting into the fisherman’s waders and searching the river bottom with the view scopes.  We found many shells from the Asian Clam.” Tyler Willis found the lone example of the endangered mussel that day.
With cold weather, no one wanted to stop and do more exploring. Instead, the whole group rafted the two miles down to the waiting cars. The rafts were provided free of charge by Willdwater. Kevin Gibbs and Matt Cook, Wildwater guides, volunteered their time.
Monica Fortner said she enjoyed getting their raft stuck and then unstuck on the river rocks.  Many were amused when Clapp, the trip organizer, flipped his canoe.
Others in the group were Jonah Winchester, Morgan Green, Marley Simmons, Blair Allman, Athena Arkansas, George Helmer, and Kaitlin Roberts, and Ms. Anne Watkins, the club’s faculty advisor. Partway down the river, Dr. Karen Kandl, a Western Carolina University biology instructor joined the group.  She has extensive experience with freshwater mussels.
A chilled, but more ecologically informed group of students agreed that this hands-on search for an endangered animal was a worthwhile adventure. And they might like to extend the investigation next year.
There may be a real possibility for more involvement. WATR recently submitted a proposal to the NC Wildlife Resource Commission. Among several tasks, a start-up initiative in mussel monitoring, to be led by Dr. Kandl, is called for in the application.
If the proposal is accepted, students, as well as parents and other adults, could participate in science and help protect our aquatic resources.  Contact the WATR office at 828-488-8418 if you are interested. WATR’s involvement in the field trip was supported by a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

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