With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Meghan Hope is a policy analyst with the economic growth and endangered species management office at the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, with her work focusing on freshwater mussels in Texas being possibly listed as an endangered species in the state.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Can you describe your role as a policy analyst for the economic growth and endangered species management office?
Meghan Hope: As part of my role, I oversee a species research funding program, and I especially focus on freshwater mussels, as those are a species, or a group of species, that are a high priority for us. We also have funding for other species that are under review for being listed as an endangered species in the state, and we have a team of staff members that focus in on each of those species.
Trib+Water: What factors play into an animal or species being placed on the endangered species list, what happens once it’s been placed on that list and what’s your role once that happens?
Hope: Any entity can submit a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the service to consider listing the species. In that petition, the entity cites the reasons why they believe the species should be listed.
Once that happens, the service does a 90-day review of that petition, and after reviewing that information, they determine if additional review is warranted. If there’s enough evidence within the petition at that point, they’ll do an in-depth review, or what’s called a 12-month review. They look at the information and citations in the petition and also do their own research to really analyze why that species should be listed. The service uses what’s called a species status assessment process as they go through and analyze the species. They look at the current needs and threats of the species, and they project that into the future.
All of that is done through the service. Our role comes in with our research funding program. We fund state universities to gather information that the service can use for their assessment process — information they need to understand the species and where it should be listed. Some of the research for freshwater mussels we’re funding is to get a better understanding of the magnitude of some threats. We’re funding a study to look into sedimentation, a potential threat identified by the service for freshwater mussels, to figure out how much the mussels can handle. We come in to make sure the service has as much science on hand as possible to make a decision based on science.
Trib+Water: Why might freshwater mussels be added to the endangered species list in Texas? Do you know when a decision whether the species is added to the list will be made?
Hope: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just started, within the last couple of months, a species status assessment process for Central Texas mussels. They have been reaching out to researchers and agencies to gather information that’s already out there about the mussels and updating distribution maps for the species. The service has scheduled a decision be made about Central Texas mussels by Sept. 2018. Between now and then, they’ll be assessing all of the information available for the species. We will have our research going on, and we will pass over that information to the service for them to make a decision.
At this point, it could depend on science that’s developed in the next year, but that being said, we saw the first freshwater mussel in Texas proposed for listing back in August with the Texas Hornshell. That was the first time we were able to see how the service handled their species status assessment and what key elements they focused on. Using that as a model, that can give us an indication on how the service is going to approach these other mussels, and some of the areas they focused on as key threats involved water quality and water quantity issues.
We think the fact that that mussel was proposed for listing can give us pause when thinking about the other mussels. One activity we’ll focus on this next year is gathering stakeholders — businesses and researchers of the service — to share information and focus on educational presentation, and to also have some initial discussions about possible voluntary conservation measures. If there are other ways mussels are being protected, a listing on top of that may not be necessary, or it could allow for more time before the final decision is made if there is some voluntary conservation going on.