Texas officials, wary of species designation, pay for mussel research


Texas comptroller announces $2.3 milion in research money.

Research is latest in comptroller-led effort to pre-empt endangered species listings.

Ranchers, industry, others say habitat protections could hamper business.

Hoping to stave off further limits on how much water cities, manufacturers and farmers could pull from Central Texas rivers, state officials announced Tuesday that they are paying for new research into the populations of five species of freshwater mussels that are being considered by federal authorities for endangered species listings.

The Texas comptroller’s office will pay $2.3 million to Texas State University researchers to study five species of mussels, found in the Colorado, Brazos and Guadalupe rivers.

A rare species tag could translate into special habitat protections that would have far-reaching implications for how the state’s river authorities distribute water while still leaving enough in Texas’ already stressed rivers to keep mussels healthy.

The mussel project — which will examine the conditions needed to maintain the mussels’ habitat, and the range of environmental stresses mussels can tolerate — is part of a larger project, spearheaded by the comptroller’s office, to bankroll scientific research to help try to convince federal authorities not to list species as endangered, which ranchers, developers, energy companies and others have said will hurt business.

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The research “will address voluntary conservation measures that, if needed, will protect the mussels while minimizing potential impacts to our state’s economy,” Comptroller Glenn Hegar said in a news release. “Our office believes a science-driven, open and transparent stakeholder process will lead to a collaborative solution for issues concerning the Central Texas mussel.”

In 2013, and again in 2015, the Legislature appropriated $5 million to the comptroller’s office to contract with state universities for research on species under review for endangered species listing.

Hegar’s predecessor, Susan Combs, had used the money to aggressively ward off endangered species listings, which she once referred to as “incoming Scud missiles.”

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Hegar has taken a more conciliatory approach — while still aiming to pre-empt endangered species listings.

Hegar said he will be collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The study will involve partnerships with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center and the Inks Dam and Uvalde national fish hatcheries, evaluating methods for the breeding of mussels in hatcheries to increase their numbers, and the reintroduction of those mussels to their native habitats.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says dams and reduced water quality are affecting the health of the mussels.

Officials at the Lower Colorado River Authority say it’s premature to say what future listings might affect the Colorado basin.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s southwest regional director, Benjamin Tuggle, said he welcomed the “proactive, partnership approach to mussel research and voluntary conservation.”

RELATED: Texas mussel proposed as endangered, with implications for waterways

The Texas State study will focus on the false spike, smooth pimpleback, Texas fatmucket, Texas fawnsfoot and Texas pimpleback mussels species.

As long ago as 2011, the federal biologists determined that many of those species warranted a threatened or endangered species designation.

The federal authorities plan to make a decision on the species by 2018.

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