Federal agency would protect coalfields habitat for crayfish

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal agency has proposed designating habitat areas for two protected crayfish species in the coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

The proposal announced in a statement Monday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would protect 362 stream miles for the Big Sandy crayfish and 83 miles for the Guyandotte River crayfish.

The Guyandotte crayfish is listed as an endangered species and the Big Sandy crayfish as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Guyandotte River crayfish has lost more than 90% of its range and is now only found in two streams in Wyoming County, West Virginia.

The Big Sandy crayfish, whose range has been reduced by more than 60%, is found in the upper Big Sandy watershed in southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

The environmental group had alleged in a 2018 lawsuit that the species were being harmed by sediment from coal mining operations that disturbed their stream habitat. The lawsuit said the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn't acting fast enough in designating the habitat areas.

The designation would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to be consulted if projects are planned in those areas.

“These protections throw a lifeline to these rapidly vanishing crayfish, which are being snuffed out by coal-mining pollution,” center attorney Perrin de Jong said in a statement. “Protecting the habitat of these unique species will not only help prevent their extinction, but safeguard water quality for people too.”

The designation does not establish a formal conservation area or set aside lands and does not affect land ownership.

The proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days, after which the Fish and Wildlife Service will make a final decision.

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