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Alabama crayfish clings to survival amid weaker protections

(Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) — The slender claw crayfish is barely surviving in northern Alabama.

The tiny animal is now known to survive in just two creeks near Sand Mountain, where they burrow under rocks in shallow, slow-moving waters, AL.com reported.

The animal lost most of its original habitat when the Tennessee River was dammed to create Lake Guntersville in 1939. And the population is still dwindling.

Biologists who study the slender claw crayfish are not entirely certain why the population is still declining.

“We knew this species was in worse shape than when it was first described in the 1970s,” said Chris Taylor, a biologist, and curator of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Prairie Research Institute. “The reasons for its decline are not well understood. It’s still somewhat of a mystery.”

More uncertainty surrounds whether the animal will get formal protections from the federal government.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the crayfish as a threatened species. However, the change may not be as protective as in the past, due to recently announced changes in how President Donald Trump’s administration will apply the Endangered Species Act, Al.com reported.

The administration recently finalized three new rules that will end a policy granting threatened species the same level of protection as endangered species. They will allow the government to consider economic factors when weighing protections and add limits on which areas can be designated as a species’ critical habitat, areas were altering the landscape would require a permit.

Critics say the changes will make it harder for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adequately protect species like the slender claw crayfish.

“We think (the changes) are illegal, immoral and irrational,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that advocates for at-risk species to be given federal protections.

Curry said the change will slow down the process of listing a species as threatened, which can already take years to complete.

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