On a blessedly cool, cloudy and breezy, late September morning, a small flotilla of motorboats embarked from Higgins Ferry boat ramp on Alabama Power’s Lake Mitchell. The biologists in the boats, including experts from the power company and state and federal agencies, were in search of an endangered species of snail found in Alabama and nowhere else on the planet.
Over the last decade, experts have taken advantage of the periodic water drawdowns on Mitchell, Lay and Jordan lakes on the Coosa River to take stock of the rare rough hornsnail.
With a conical, brownish shell that’s roughly 1-inch long at maturity, the tiny snail is known to exist only on Lay and Mitchell lakes and in water below Jordan Dam.
The drawdowns benefit property owners on Alabama Power reservoirs, giving them an opportunity to make repairs to docks and other permitted waterside structures. But the lowering of the lakes can also have an adverse effect on the snail population. On the other hand, it also provides biologists an opportunity to scour the temporarily exposed strip of shoreline to search for, and gauge the health of, the endangered rough hornsnail. During the outings, experts count the snails they find, examine their condition and place them back in the water.
The first organized survey for rough hornsnails on Alabama Power lakes took place in 2013, about three years after the snails were officially added to the federal endangered species list. Since then, surveys have been conducted every five years during the drawdowns, with the last one taking place in 2018.
Jennifer Grunewald with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds a rough hornsnail during a survey at Alabama Power’s Lake Mitchell. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
The rough hornsnail was added to the federal endangered species list in 2010. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
The drawdowns used to be more frequent, but the number has been reduced in part to help protect the endangered species. Also, the water level is lowered gradually to help protect the snails and give many of those that are temporarily exposed enough time to move, on their own power, back into the water.
Historically, the rough hornsnail’s range was believed to extend about 320 river miles along the Coosa, as well as on the Cahaba River in Alabama. But over the years, impacts to water quality caused by human intrusion and development, including river impoundments, have taken a toll on the diminutive mussel.
During the brief time – only about two weeks – that the water is being lowered this fall, in succession, on Jordan, Mitchell and Lay lakes, expert teams are making trips to search for and document the health of the rough hornsnail.
The rough hornsnail. (Thomas Tarpley / Outdoor Alabama)
On Jordan, the snail has yet to be seen, and the just completed survey there did not find them. But on Mitchell, it’s a different story.
Last week, about 20 experts from Alabama Power, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and Alabama-based PowerSouth Energy Cooperative broke into six teams to fan out across Lake Mitchell and survey locations where the snails have been seen before.
During the course of just one day, they found hundreds of snails. The initial findings, five years since the last survey on Mitchell, indicate that the snail population on the reservoir is stable – a positive signal that protection measures are working. The protective measures include guidelines for how construction can take place in areas of the lake designated as known or potential rough hornsnail habitat.
Before any construction can begin within the reservoir, a survey of the shoreline at the site has to be conducted by a certified professional to ensure no snails will be impacted. And, if snails are found on the site, they must be relocated to a safe area before a construction permit can be issued. During the drawdowns, homeowners may work in the exposed shoreline area above the water line without conducting a snail survey.
Alabama Power’s Chad Fitch briefs biologists and wildlife experts before they head out on Lake Mitchell in search of the rough hornsnail. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
Rough hornsnails (and the more common smooth hornsnail) collected at Lake Mitchell. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
Alabama Power works with state and federal agencies in a cooperative effort to assess and preserve the rough hornsnail and another rare snail, the Tulotoma snail, found in the Coosa. In 2011, federal officials “downlisted” the Tulotoma snail from endangered to threatened, the first snail in history to make the move, signifying a significant improvement in the health of the species. Alabama Power’s role in the snail’s recovery included adjusting how water is released from Jordan Dam to more closely mirror the natural flow of water in the basin.
Alabama Power coordinates with government agencies and others on efforts to preserve other important freshwater aquatic species in the state, including the flattened musk turtle, rush darter and Black Warrior waterdog. The company also works with the agencies as part of license obligations under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate hydroelectric dams.
“Alabama Power is devoted to working cooperatively with partners, the state and federal government, and people in the communities we serve to help protect Alabama’s important natural resources and ecosystems,” said Chad Fitch, a biologist and Environmental Affairs specialist at Alabama Power. Fitch is part of the team working to protect the rough hornsnail and other rare species.
Examining snails captured at Lake Mitchell. Experts look for specific markings that distinguish rough hornsnails from other, more common species. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
Snail trails along the sandy shoreline at Lake Mitchell. The snails will slowly move toward the water if they are exposed. (Michael Sznajderman / Alabama News Center)
The ongoing efforts, in coordination with public agencies, as well as private and nonprofit partners, are helping to expand knowledge and protect other rare flora and fauna in Alabama, from longleaf pine forests and the red-cockaded woodpeckers that rely on them, to salamanders and bats, to gopher tortoises, to the Alabama canebrake pitcher plant.
“The focus on monitoring and preserving populations of rough hornsnail is just one example of the great teamwork taking place across the state to protect the environment we all share,” Fitch said, “and the plants and animals that make Alabama special.”
To learn more about Alabama Power’s environmental stewardship efforts, click here.