Biologists evaluate mussels in the Little River.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cIs this the road here?\u201d Gary Peeples asks as the van approaches a dirt road in the middle of a cornfield.\r\n\r\n\u201cGo just a little farther and there\u2019s a pull off on the other side of the bridge,\u201d John Fridell replies.\r\n\r\nPeeples, a public affairs officer with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), pulls the van onto the grassy shoulder of a county road near the banks of North Carolina\u2019s Little River.\u00a0 He and John Fridell, a FWS biologist, step out into the quiet valley.\r\n\r\nA few months ago, the section of the river had been stocked with 30 mussels. Peeples and Fridell are hoping to locate some of those mussels and also get an idea of the health of the stream\u2019s other species by doing an unofficial survey.\r\n\r\nTo do so, they slip into full-body wetsuits and strapped on dive masks, snorkels, and underwater cameras to get a fish-eye view of what the river is really like.\r\n\r\n\u201cEven if you\u2019re out there fishing or paddling, you\u2019re still looking at the water from above. But snorkeling gives you such an incredibly intimate look at the life of a river,\u201d Peeples explains. \u201cFish are swimming around you, you see mussels and other aquatic life, and, really, you just become part of the river.\u201d\r\n\r\nOne of the main species that indicates a healthy stream or river is the mussel, a small clam that once thrived in the rivers of western North Carolina. Abundant and diverse numbers of mussels suggests that the river is home to a variety of other aquatic wildlife.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe well-being of the mussels reflects the well-being of the streams,\u201d Peeples says. \u201cThe better the mussels are doing, the healthier the streams will be.\u201d\r\n\r\nWithin minutes after entering the water, Fridell finds his first mussel: an Appalachian elktoe, which is one of eight species of mussels on the endangered list in North Carolina.\u00a0 The elktoe once lived in the majority of the rivers and larger creeks of the upper Tennessee River system in North Carolina. The species still survives in scattered pockets of suitable habitat in portions of the Little Tennessee, Pigeon, Mills, and Little River watersheds.\r\n\r\nSnorkeling through the clear waters of the Little River, Fridell and Peeples scour the river bottom for the unmistakable sign of a mussel: two tiny holes in the sand and gravel that are the only visible sign. The two holes are used by the mussels to filter the water through their bodies.\r\n\r\n\u201cEach mussel is its own little wastewater treatment plant,\u201d Peeples says. \u201cMussels clean the water for us, which is an incredible service they provide, free of charge, and one that we should support as much as possible.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe biologists carefully remove the mussels, check to see if they had been tagged, make a note of the size and type of species, and then carefully return them to the exact same place they had been found.\r\n\r\nIn the late 1990s, the FWS had considered removing the Appalachian elktoe from the endangered species list because its numbers had begun to improve. But in the past few years, mussel populations have declined dramatically. Fridell believes the die-offs could have been caused by a combination of pollutants in the river and an extended drought, which reduced water levels and made the toxins in the water more potent.\r\n\r\n\u201cI\u2019ve been working in this field for about 32 years now,\u201d Fridell says. \u201cI\u2019ve seen changes that I wouldn\u2019t have expected to see in my lifetime\u2014just rapid degradation of aquatic systems. It\u2019s just amazing to me how quickly we can destroy a lot of these systems. I\u2019ve seen changes that I would rather not have seen, and for them to happen so quickly, I just didn\u2019t expect it.\u201d\r\n\r\nDespite the overall decline in mussel populations, all hope is not lost. The Tuckaseegee River and parts of the Nolichucky are showing dramatic improvements. And today\u2019s river snorkeling findings confirm that the Little River is doing remarkably well, too.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s rare that you can go places and see the number of mussels and variety of aquatic wildlife that we saw today,\u201d says Fridell.\r\nFlex Your Mussels:\u00a0How to help the Elktoe\r\n\r\n\tEstablish forested streamside buffers. Several programs are available to assist landowners with restoring and protecting streamside buffers and eroding streams.\r\n\tControl erosion and stormwater, especially after rain.\r\n\tMinimize or eliminate use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. What you spray on your lawn or dump down the drain will eventually wind up in nearby rivers and streams.\r\n\tSupport local, state and national clean water legislation.\r\n\tReport illegal dumping activities, erosion, and sedimentation problems.\r\n\tProtect remaining wildlands and the restoration of damaged ecosystems.