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Editorial: Taking steps to save tiny Lee isopod

Editorial Board • May 19, 2020 at 10:00 PM

The “butterfly effect” is the notion that such an insignificant thing as a single insect flapping its wings can set in motion a series of events leading to massive environmental change. In our region we might call this the Lee County isopod effect.

This freshwater crustacean, lacking eyes and pigmentation, was discovered in 1961 in two cave systems near Jonesville. It is not known to exist anywhere else in the world. In 1987, leachate from a nearby sawmill heavily polluted one system, killing all life. That left only one source for this tiny creature.

By the end of 2001 it was making a recovery in the second system, but in addition to water quality degradation, threats to this unique creature included use of sinkholes as disposal sites for wastes, as well as failing septic systems. In 1992, the Lee County isopod was listed as endangered and a plan was developed to save it. The Cedars, an area of more than 30 square miles, was designated a Natural Area Preserve. It’s also a haven for many rare plant species.

Now, at long last, the former sawmill site is to be cleaned up, removing the last immediate threat to the crustacean. The Nature Conservancy, which owns the site, will then turn it over to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The cleanup project also involves removing old buildings, abandoned materials and equipment, said Steve Lindeman, land protection program manager with The Nature Conservancy. The Daniel Boone Trail Association and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality also helped with developing the grant application for the sawmill project, he added.

This isn’t the first such rescue effort in Southwest Virginia, a special place in our natural world. For instance, the Clinch River is home to some 50 species of mussels, more than in any other river on the planet. In 1998, a tanker truck carrying a chemical used to make foam rubber overturned on U.S. 460, spilling its contents into the Clinch. It killed more than 7,000 mussels, including the golden riffleshell mussel, which is found nowhere else.

Four years ago, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologists could find only three female golden riffleshell mussels in the wild that were carrying larval young. They placed them in a holding tub and drove to a McDonald’s parking lot in Pikeville, Kentucky, where Monte McGregor, director of Kentucky’s Center for Mollusk Conservation, extracted the larvae, with the adults quickly returned to the river.

Over months, McGregor’s lab successfully raised 1,600 young mussels. Most were transported to Virginia’s Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center in Marion, where they were grown to adult size and then released, bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.

Forever losing a tiny creature found only in a single cave in a remote area of the Appalachians might never be noticed as the world continues to evolve. Or, its loss might have profound affects. We don’t know, which is why society works hard to prevent extinctions.

Each species lost threatens the ecosystem upon which all life depends. Saving the Lee County isopod is “a win for the environment and the people,” Lindeman said. We couldn’t agree more.

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