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The Kansas Wildlife department grew its own mussels. Now, it’s putting them back where they belong.

Neosho Mucket mussels being released into the Neosho river.
Amy Maynard
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Neosho Mucket mussels being released into the Neosho river.

The state released about 8,500 mussels into two watersheds in southeast Kansas this fall.

Stocking the state’s waters with protected mussel species is a new conservation strategy from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

This fall, the state released thousands of mussels grown in fish hatcheries into two southeast Kansas rivers that are struggling to maintain healthy shellfish populations.

“The goal is to slowly work across both watersheds to get those populations reestablished and delisted from the state and federal endangered species act,” said Trevor Starks, a species recovery coordinator with Wildlife and Parks.

The state stocked the Marmaton River with 7,175 Fatmucket mussels – a species that’s considered in need of conservation in Kansas. And it released more than 1,300 of the federally endangered Neosho Mucket mussels into the Neosho River in Neosho County.

The Fatmucket mussels were grown at the state’s own aquatic biodiversity center near Pittsburg, Kansas, while the Neosho Mucket mussels were reared in a Missouri fish hatchery and the Kansas City zoo.

Forty freshwater mussel species reside in Kansas, according to Wildlife and Parks. But nearly 60 percent have some level of conservation concern and most have disappeared from part of the waters they historically occupied.

Human development, mussel harvests and water pollution have fragmented mussels’ habitat and diminished their populations, Starks said.

“Prior to the Clean Water Act, rivers were basically treated as sewers to move waste downstream, move it away from the city, so you had really bad water quality issues,” Starks said.

“(Mussels) are kind of like a canary in the coal mine, a bio-indicator,” he added. “If the water’s so bad that your mussels are dying, that’s usually a bad problem for people as well. If we’ve got mussels surviving there, we know that water quality’s good.”

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks staff release the Neosho Mucket mussels into the river.
Courtesy of Trevor Starks
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Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks
Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks staff release the Neosho Mucket mussels into the river.

Starks said that because of improved water quality and better land use practices, Kansas now has habitats that could sustain mussel populations again.

In both of the state’s releases, the mussels were stocked on private property. That’s because 98% of land in Kansas is privately-owned, Starks said. The state has an agreement with the federal government that allows private landowners to participate in the conservation project.

Starks said that the program protects landowners from being held responsible for harm that might come to endangered species on their property as a result of legal land use. That could include farming, ranching or construction.

Rick Hines agreed to the release of Neosho Mucket mussels on his property in September. A passionate conservationist, he preserves part of his land as native prairie. Another piece of his land is farmed by tenants.

He was eager to have an endangered mussel species released on his property.

“It has a big impact on me emotionally,” Hines said. “I’ve been fascinated by the life cycle of mussels. … They’re a big part of the circle of life. A lot of animals – racoons, river otter – they feed on the mussel as a primary food source.”

Hines noted that mussels act as water filters, so it’s important to have them in water bodies that take in fertilizer runoff from agriculture.

“From my position, it’s a win-win,” Hines said. “I would strongly encourage it as much as possible. I don’t think it results in any negative aspects for the landowner, for the farmer that participates.”

Staff will return to the sites in the spring and next year to see whether the mussels survived and can reproduce in the waters. Starks said repopulating a species could mean it’s removed from endangered species lists down the road – ultimately leading to less regulation and red tape in the state.

The state is planning more conservation stockings through 2024, including 18,000 mussels in southeast Kansas as soon as drought conditions improve. The state is also raising the state-threatened Plains minnow in a hatchery in hopes of releasing them back into Kansas waters.

Landowners interested in helping recover imperiled species through the Kansas Aquatic Species Recovery Program are encouraged to contact Starks at trevor.starks@ks.gov.

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.