Alabama: A biodiverse state, but also one where species are threatened

Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states, especially in aquatic species. However, it also has over 100 animal species federally listed as endangered or threatened, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Nick Privitera
Contributing Writer

Incredible creatures live beneath the surface of the water in streams, rivers and lakes across the state of Alabama. Some swim, others crawl, while others hardly seem to move at all. Despite their differences, they all make their homes in the most abundant resource on the face of the planet: water, and more importantly, Alabama water.

Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states, especially in aquatic species. However, it also has over 100 animal species federally listed as endangered or threatened, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A large portion of those species are aquatic in nature as well.

Bill Pearson, a field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Alabama ranks third among states for number of listed endangered and threatened species.

“Unfortunately because of that rich diversity, there is more opportunity for species to become imperiled. Unfortunately, we’re third in the country in total listed species behind Hawaii and California,” Pearson said. “People don’t think of Alabama being particularly diverse in its aquatic habitat or having a lot of listed species on the endangered species list, but we do.”

In Alabama, there are 203 species of freshwater snails, 182 species of mussels, 84 species of described crayfish, and 347 species of fish. With so many different aquatic animals, not taking into consideration the hundreds of terrestrial species, it might seem that Alabama’s endangered and threatened species are not much of a problem. The issue is more complicated than the number of listed species, though.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is empowered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, performs research and provides funding to its affiliates to conduct their own research, perform surveys, enact plans to protect species and return extirpated species to their habitats.

With organizations such as the Geological Survey of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been studying aquatic species across the state to identify potential species that could be listed with the federal government.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has produced five volumes of Alabama Wildlife, the most recent being released this year. In the volumes, species of all kinds are identified and given a priority ranking that indicates a need for conservation or further research to prevent a federal listing on the endangered species list.

“They get a priority status. Priority one being the most high priority or need and five being least,” said Stuart McGregor, a biologist with the Geological Survey of Alabama. “It may overlap endangered or threatened status at the federal level, which really has teeth in it.”

A priority one ranking for a species indicates an “immediate need” for research and conservation, and it represents the species of greatest concern to scientists. A species with such a status is facing risks of endangerment or extinction because of several issues. These problems can range from habitat vulnerability to a decrease in population viability. Some are a result of human interaction with ecosystems, while others occur because of the sheer rarity of a species. Alabama has 124 aquatic species ranked as priority one, with 25 types of freshwater snails, 55 types of mussels, 12 types of crayfish and 33 types of fish composing the list.

These priority rankings in Alabama Wildlife give state and federal officials a jumping-off point to create conservation and research plans for the future.

A major initiative from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center. Under the direction of Dr. Paul Johnson, the center works to restore rare species to their natural habitats, especially mollusks like mussels and snails. These mollusks help filter water and keep an ecosystem clean, making it easier to return other species to a healthy habitat and maintain the health of existing species.

“This is done in support of improving water quality across the state. Because we have so many species there is literally a face in every drainage,” Johnson said. “This is a way to focus more efforts on improving our water quality and our water supplies.”

Bringing back species to Alabama and boosting numbers of other aquatic animals is also an initiative of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. With the help of their partners, they have identified strategic habitat units where efforts might be effective at protecting animals. These units are located all over the state in major watersheds and even spread into parts of Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee. The SHUs were chosen because there is a presence of federally listed species and possible threats that can be averted through cooperation with land owners and businesses in the area.

“Our message is that what is good for the mussels and fish is good for everybody,” said Jeff Powell, a deputy field supervisor with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “It really doesn’t cost that much and it’s not that big of a burden, but everybody has got to be on board.”

According to Powell, a key to the success of conservation efforts is building trust and relationships with the people of Alabama. If the citizens know and understand the importance of the work being done, they are more likely to embrace the work of agencies and help ensure the future of the state’s biodiversity.