Batesville hearing discusses future of two endangered species

BATESVILLE, AR (KAIT) - Congressman Rick Crawford called more than 100 landowners, businesses and concerned citizens together to discuss the future of two endangered mussel species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a critical habitat designation for the Neosho Mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels.

This means the region may have to do more to prevent the mussels from becoming extinct and many in Region 8 worry this could have negative economic impacts.

"We could see millions and millions of dollars lost in productivity, farmers who can't farm, ranchers who can't run their cattle, businesses that operate in proximity to the rivers," Crawford said.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the estimated cost for additional federal actions because of the proposed designation would be about $5 million over 20 years. It would impact 31 counties and more than 700 miles of rivers and streams in Arkansas.

The proposed designation would have the largest impact on the agriculture industry. The government would enforce more restrictions and regulations to protect these species under the Endangered Species Act.

Supporters said they need restrictions like this to protect the endangered mussels before they become extinct.

However, opponents said the government is being overprotective and, instead, should protect someone else: farmers.

"We have always made our living from the land," Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach said.

Veach is a third generation farmer from Mississippi County. He said he worries protecting these endangered species would change farmers' entire way of life.

"Those kind of normal, agricultural practices that we do every day on our farms and ranches could be disrupted," Veach said.

Veach said there could be new regulations on daily activities, such as cutting timber, draining water or using herbicides.

"It will take over these operations and put us out of business," Veach said.

However, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee isn't so sure. The organization recently worked with PECO to move its drainage system.

"There were some mussels in those areas that we were worried about so they located the outfall in another position so they didn't have any problems with that and they were allowed to go forward," said Cynthia Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service southeast regional director. "I think people are fearful of things that they're not completely sure of and I think there have been examples in the past where there have been impacts. I believe in the southeast, and the record has proven this, that 99 percent of the actions are going forward with no cost and with minimal delay."

Veach does not believe farmers could endanger these two species.

"We are, the farmers and ranchers around our state, are the best environmentalists that there are because we make our living from the environment so we're going to take care of it," Veach said. "We're protecting our livelihood that way so we're going to take care of the environment."

Dohner said farmers are not necessarily doing anything wrong; there may just be better, more environmentally friendly ways to go about farming.

"Over the next ten years in the southeast, we have to evaluate more than 400 species to see if they need that protection," Dohner said. "Not to list them, but to determine if they need that protection."

Veach, Crawford and other opponents of the designation are asking for a full economic assessment of what this designation would entail.

One thing everyone can agree on is the importance of public input.

The next public comment hearings are in June in Batesville and Benton. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will wait until after these hearings to make a final decision about the critical habitat designation.

For more information, visit Congressman Crawford's website or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

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