The Alabama Electric Cooperative prepared a draft report entitled Aquatic Resources of the Conecuh and Sepulga Rivers in July of 1999 as part of their requirements by FERC for the re-licensing of hydropower operations on the Conecuh River System. This report identified 20 species of special concern within the Escambia drainage in Alabama and Florida. Alabama has identified 15 species of concern, Florida 3, and the USFWS identified the Gulf Sturgeon as threatened and the Alabama shad as a possible candidate species.
Gulf Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus), is a threatened species found in major Coastal Plain Streams and in the Gulf of Mexico. The sturgeon is an anadromous fish which lives in saltwater habitats for most of the year, but returns to freshwater to spawn. Free-flowing habitat is essential to their survival.
Banded Topminnow (Fundulus auroguttatuas), special concern species in Alabama. This topminnow has been collected from Big Escambia Creek at Flomaton and from the Conecuh River near the state line. (Appendix to AEC p.26)
Alabama Shad (Alosa alabamae), a candidate species for the endangered species list identified by the National Marine Fisheries Service. An anadromous fish species that enters the Conecuh to spawn. Collected in the Conecuh River near Pollard, AL in Escambia County.
Rough shiner (Notropis baileyi), considered rare in Florida.
Striped shiner (Luxilus chrysocephalus), considered rare in Florida.
Bluehead chub (Nocomis leptocephalus), considered rare in Florida.
FISH STATUS IN CONECUH / ESCAMBIA RIVER BASIN
Species diversity for fish in the Escambia River system in Florida is the second highest in the state, with 81 species. The Apalachicola contains the highest diversity in Florida. (Appendix to AEC p.26)
Thirty species of freshwater mussels are known from the Conecuh / Escambia River system in Alabama and Florida. Only one of these, the Gulf Moccasinshell, is protected by the Endangered Species Act. However, scientists consider 12 other species to be imperiled or of special concern. (McGregor)
The Gulf Moccasinshell (Medionidus penicillatus), a threatened species,
Two species, the Alabama pearlshell (Margaritifera marrianae) and the Round ebonyshell (Obovaria rotulata), though not federally protected by the Endangered Species Act, are considered endangered by scientists. Similarly 4 species, the Narrow Pigtoe (Fusconia escambia), Southern sandshell (Lampsilis australis), Southern kidneyshell (Ptychobranchus jonesi), and the Choctaw bean (Villosa choctawensis) are all considered threatened by scientists. And six additional species are considered of special concern:
Southern creekshell (Anodontoides radiatus)
Delicate Spike (Elliptio arctata)
Purple pigtoe (Fusconia succissa)
Southern Pocketbook (Lampsilis ornata)
Fuzzy pigtoe (Pleurobema strodeanum)
Southern creekmussel (Strophitus subvexus). (McGregor)
The Escambia River Basin, like many coastal plain streams in Alabama, has been minimally surveyed for mussel faunas compared to other basins in the northern regions of the state. The most recent survey was completed in 2000 by the Geological Survey of Alabama. This survey yielded one undescribed species in the Eliptio genus. (McGregor)
MUSSEL STATUS IN CONECUH / ESCAMBIA RIVER BASIN
The Red Hills Salamander is a threatened species, found nowhere outside of the coastal plains of Alabama. Its current estimated range is limited to approximately 50,000 acres. It is less common than the other 40 salamanders occurring in Alabama.
It has probably always been confined to moist deciduous forest over a narrow east-west geologic band called the Tallahatta formation. Below the steep bluffs and ravines is a water-retaining chalky clay called siltstone, and the Red Hills salamander’s burrows invariably come in contact with this source of moisture. Although the formation extends into both Mississippi and Georgia, the salamander has apparently never become established across the Alabama River to the west or the Conecuh River to the east.
Dr. Leslie Hubricht first discovered the salamander in the spring of 1960 during an investigation of land snails in Butler County. His accidental discovery became “one of the most sensational North American herpetological finds of the century.” Within a year, Dr. Richard Highton of the University of Maryland determined that it was not only a new species, but the first new salamander genus discovered in North America since 1939. He named it Phaeognathus hubrichti after its discoverer. The generic name, pronounced fee-oh-NATH-us, means “dark-jaw.” (Bailey)
The Red Hills salamander grows to a maximum length of about 10 inches, making it our largest non-aquatic salamander. Having no close relatives, it is the sole member of its genus. Adding to its uniqueness, the Red Hills salamander is the only terrestrial vertebrate species that is found only in Alabama. Its entire range falls within parts of Butler, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, and Monroe counties.
Range and Habitat
The rugged Tallahatta terrain supports an Appalachian-like forest with beech, magnolias, oaks, hickories, rhododendrons, and mountain laurel. As many as five species of magnolia can be found on some slopes, and where undisturbed, such habitats are among the most biologically diverse and visually impressive in the Eastern United States. Up until the middle of this century, man’s activities probably had little lasting effect on the Red Hills salamander, since its habitat is generally too steep for easy cultivation, and logging was usually in the form of select cutting.
Attention was drawn to the salamander’s declining conservation status in 1975. Auburn University biologists reported a steady decrease in Red Hills salamander habitat due to conversion of natural forest to pine plantation, noting that 44 percent of the remaining suitable habitat was owned or leased by paper companies using pine plantation silviculture, and 15 percent was owned or leased by companies using selective cutting. The remaining 41 percent was owned by private individuals, most of whom owned less than 100 acres each.
Studies Yield More Information
A 1976 study estimated the amount of remaining suitable habitat at 54,900 acres. At least 3,670 acres of habitat that almost certainly supported salamander populations had been lost between 1966 and 1976. It was found that complete canopy removal on south-facing slopes tended to eliminate populations. Naturally regenerating north-facing slopes continued to support low densities of salamanders even after having been heavily cut as much as 10 years earlier, but no salamanders were found in places where all canopy had been removed. Based largely on these findings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Red Hills salamander as a threatened species in 1976. It was the first North American amphibian to receive federal protection.
A reassessment of the status of the Red Hills salamander was undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1988. A total of 144 sites was visited in all five counties; 92 of those sites were visited in the 1976 survey. Habitat conditions for the salamander at over 75 percent of the sites had either remained unchanged or had improved, but some sites had been negatively impacted by timber harvesting. Because the salamanders are very sensitive to habitat disturbance, especially drying and/or compaction of the ground surface, the following suggestions were made to reduce impacts from timber harvesting:
- Clearcutting should be avoided on the steep slopes occupied by Red Hills salamanders.
- Mechanical site preparation should be avoided where salamanders occur.
- Selective cutting should maintain at least two-thirds canopy cover.
- When areas above or below occupied slopes are cleared, a forested buffer strip should be left to provide shade and moisture retention.
In 1991, International Paper Company, which owns an estimated 12 percent of the salamander’s entire range, began work on a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Red Hills salamander. Under such a plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues an incidental take permit (allowing degradation of some occupied habitat), provided the applicant protects and monitors a certain portion of its salamander habitat elsewhere. The plan was approved in 1993. International Paper’s initiative raised awareness among other paper companies with holdings in the salamander’s range, and others have since conducted surveys for the salamander and/or stepped up protection of its habitat. Three companies have begun work on their own HCPs.
The Red Hills salamander is listed as threatened, which is one step closer to recovery than endangered. If the current level of concern and cooperation of the corporate landowners within the salamander’s range is any indication, enough habitat may eventually be incorporated into HCPs to permit the provisional removal of the Red Hills salamander from the list of endangered and threatened species. That would be good news for industry, environmentalists, and the entire Red Hills ecosystem.
There are 15 aquatic invertebrates identified by the state of Alabama as being rare or of special concern