Collecting in Kansas
Welcome to the Real World
by Karen Couch
Set Dorothy and Toto aside for
a while and consider Kansas anew. Stand waist-deep in the middle
of a wheat field on a hot, sunny afternoon. Or watch massive
combines work meticulously back and forth over a sea of gold,
and then play in the straw left behind -- finding an occasional
box turtle. See cows winding their way down narrow, well-traveled
paths to the watering pond. Experience these pleasures and you
will know a different Kansas, a vast natural playground for
Growing up in Kansas, I spent
half my childhood in this outdoor wonderland and for a few years
my family lived where there was a pond right in the back yard.
We were also a mile or less from the Neosho River. Seldom did
I go to the river, and never alone. Mom and Dad felt it was
too dangerous a place fro children. The pond was easily accessible,
and there was always something interesting to see and do. Fish,
turtles, frogs, tadpoles, snakes, all sorts of insects and snails.
I'd find a few mussels in the river and one or two in the pond
when the water level dropped. (Who knows what ever became of
the shells -- certainly they spent a few years in a box under
the bed -- now, I wish I'd saved them. But from the age of eight
on, my interest was in SEA shells. I really thought the river
mussels were all alike.) Once I spent 20 minutes watching a
brilliant green dragonfly emerge from its nymph wrapping, spread
its crumpled wings to dry into transparent lace, and flit away,
only to be devoured by a swooping hungry bird within 50 feet.
Now THAT was a lesson in the reality of life and death. And
once I left a bucket of 3" bluegills together with several
1" baby crayfish. Two hours later the crayfish were nowhere
to be found -- the fish had enjoyed a crustacean feast. Things
never seemed the same after those shocking disappointments.
And yet it was a real privilege to witness firsthand some fascinating
things others only get to view on the Discovery Channel.
With the passage of time, some
things change and others remain the same. The kid who played
in the pond is 20 years older now. Endless days of innocent
exploration are gone. This story is about the present, and,
given my background, it is with a real feeling of loss that
I must describe the current situation, particularly with regard
to the mussel population of Kansas.
It is well-established that wildlife
has been in trouble for decades, but the children of 20 or 30
years ago were not aware of the danger. Even now, with all the
publicity about the devastation of the rainforest, we may not
think about what is silently happening in our own back yard
-- that it is much closer to home. Take notice, the trouble
is upon us.
My closer examination began when
I met a man at the Kansas State Fair who is not an environmentalist
or a biologist, but a TV News anchor from Wichita. He does weekly
3-minute stories of Kansas people with unusual interests. He
wants to know what makes us tick -- what compels us to do or
like certain things.He decided he wanted to do a story about
me as one of the few serious shell collectors in landlocked
Kansas. Knowing how he did other stories, I guessed he would
not be interested in devoting the whole piece to marine shells,
but that he would want to include something local. It had been
a very long time since I had been out looking for mussels anywhere.
Thoughts of doing something with them would occasionally come
to me, but somehow any mussel project got put on the back burner.
Now seemed like an excellent opportunity.
My husband and I know two families
who live in the Flint Hills, and have a creek on their property.
I asked if they ever saw any mussels. Yes, they said, three
or four different kinds, but not as numerous as 40 years ago.
(I wondered why.) They said we could go out any time we wanted.
It sounded like fun, a different kind of diversion.
The famous Flint Hills of Kansas
once supported one of the healthiest mussel populations in the
state. This 40-mile wide strip of beautiful hills stretches
from Nebraska to the Oklahoma border, and is characterized by
open grasslands with few trees, numerous limestone outcrops,
and slopes of flint fragments. West of the Flint Hills, particularly
to the southwest, Kansas becomes notably flat -- Wizard of Oz
country. Our trip was to Chase County, almost exactly in the
center of the Flint Hills. Cattle ranches are typical of this
area, with only a few pockets of farming. (Later I learned that
this is why the mussels are faring slightly better here than
in other parts of the state.)
With the 45-minute drive behind
us, we walked the short distance to Cedar Creek. This creek
eventually empties into the Cottonwood River, one of three main
rivers which drain the Flint Hills. It is fed by several springs,
one of which we visited on a later trip. The creek has some
areas with so little bank that it can be driven over (or through).
Other spots had banks cut so deep one had to follow the cow
path down, not walking but sliding, feet first, rear dragging
-- as much as 20 feet down to water's edge!
October/November is an excellent
time to go collecting. The water is usually low, noxious weeds
are at a minimum, flying insects are scarce, and raccoons have
had all summer to dine on mussels and scatter the cleaned shells
on the banks and riffles. Filling two grocery bags half-full
took little effort -- but of course mud on the shells added
to the weight of the bags. I picked up the mud-covered shells,
thinking all the time that there were only three or four species.
My husband walked along pointing out shells -- he was not about
to spoil my fun by assisting me in collecting. We found all
sizes of shells, some with pink and purple nacre. We had a rewarding
and fun day, and hardly even got wet. Worn out and in need of
a bath, I hauled my treasures home for soaking and scrubbing.
The several authorities on cleaning
shells all agree that a long, unrushed soak and a good, stiff
brush help immensely. They did. And the shells were all dead,
so little or no flesh remained to be removed. Now that all the
shells were cleaned, it became obvious that I had more than
four species. Eleven. And no books on freshwater mussels in
the home library. Nor in the public library, either.
Around the first part of November,
the nice news man from Wichita called me to do the TV piece.
Sure enough, we went to the creek. He was such an easy person
to talk to -- I wondered later if he learned more than he wanted
to about shells. It was enormous fun. This series airs all over
the state, so everyone who watched saw me collecting mussels.
And you know what is often said about hindsight. I'll explain
My full attention now on mussels,
I decided I needed to get my finds identified. Instead of blundering,
I called upon a good friend in Missouri for help, which she
excitedly gave. Not only was she able to ID everything, but
she also pointed out to me the extraordinary size of some of
the shells, as well as other interesting and unusual characteristics.
Well, that really got me going. We had to go back out to the
creek. (Who needs a beach?) The weather allowed for one or two
more trips in which I found an additional three species -- a
total of 14 in a half-mile of creek. If at this point you are
thinking this is mussel-collecting heaven and are packing your
gear, read on. You are in for a surprise.
My friend in Missouri sent me
a couple of books and put me on the track of other useful publications.
Before long, I was accumulating and reading everything I could
lay my hands on about freshwater mussels. I was able to identify
my three "new" species myself. Wondering if there
might be some recent publications on Kansas mussels, I called
the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Operations Office
in Pratt, Kansas. They kindly sent me some very interesting
and informative survey reports done in 1992. I read that some
of the 40 or so mussel species in Kansas are considered endangered,
threatened, or in need of conservation. I also learned why this
list exists in a state where, I innocently believed, "It
can't happen here." Four of my Cedar Creek shells were
on the "Species in Need of Conservation" list, or
SINC for short. Hmmmm.... The 1962 Murray and Leonard Handbook
of Unionid Mussels in Kansas, still available from the University
of Kansas in Lawrence, also proved useful, even though the nomenclature
In the meantime, thinking I had
gleaned all the pertinent stuff from the KDWP literature. I
looked at the names of people who had helped with surveys. One
was a Dr. Don Distler from Wichita State University, only 30
minutes away. I called the university and, sure enough, he was
still there, in the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Distler
was super nice on the phone. I told him that I was interested
in mussels, that I had some, and I inquired if he would like
to see them. Definitely, he would. A week later I was at the
lab with my box full of shells, and we talked about mussels
for three hours. He liked my shells. What I learned was most
profound. He impressed upon me that mussels are indeed in trouble
-- we'd better enjoy them while they yet remain. Enjoy and study,
not exploit and kill. At least I knew my conscience was clear
on that one -- I never did kill a mussel, not even to look for
pearls. It saddened me to know that these unique creatures were
having serious problems in what appeared to be a relatively
unpolluted area. The 8" Lasmigona complanata and 6"
Lampsilis cardium may become rare finds indeed. Doc, as I later
came to call him, had been working on an idea for writing a
specific piece on Kansas mussels. He needed illustrations for
it. What great timing! We've been busy with it ever since. Doc
told me when checking out the mussels in the creeks to pay special
attention for evidence of recruitment, that is, juveniles, and
not just adults.
But backtracking a little, let's
have another look at those Department of Wildlife and Parks
survey reports. I have the unfortunate ability to unwittingly
open the proverbial "can of worms," no matter what.
When I reread the survey reports I noticed mention of a scientific
collecting permit. Permit? For KANSAS? I called the KDWP office
in Pratt again. Yes, you certainly do need a permit. Even for
dead shells? Yes. Okay, no problem, send me the application.
Received. The completed application must be signed by the conservation
officer of the county of residence. Aware of our impending move
to a different county, I waited until after we were moved and
settled. (Doc was upset about the move, but we decided we could
still do the work. He encouraged me to make records of what
I find where -- he wanted to know.)
The only information I was given
regarding the conservation officer of my new county of residence
was his name and telephone number. No address, but they said
he was good. It turned out to be his home phone number. That
really helps a person get off on the wrong foot like nothing
else can! No way you can redeem yourself from that one. Anyway,
the officer gave me the details on filling out the application
and provided an office address to send it to. I told him I had
already collected mussels the previous year, not aware of the
need for a permit. He asked me if they were all identified,
and said to send him a list of them along with the application.
At this point, most of you might be thinking it was stupid to
say anything about having the shells. To that I say, anyone
can sneak -- it's far more noble to be honest. In this instance,
it certainly helped to be honest.
The application required specific
information: who I am working for, what counties I plan to collect
in, what I will collect (common names only), where the shells
are to be housed. In other words, you have to know where you
will be in the coming year and what you will find. I filled
out the application to the best of my ability. The conservation
officer also sent me a list of all the endangered and threatened
species and those in need of conservation. The list was composed
of common names which I had to translate into scientific nomenclature.
Six of the Kansan mussels are endangered, four are threatened,
and another twelve are on the SINC list. I guessed I should
leave any of those off my application. Correct. I made it perfectly
clear that I would only collect dead shells.
After he received my application
and list of Chase County shells collected last year, the conservation
officer called me. Among other things, he asked me if I knew
that four of the species on my shells-collected list were on
the Kansas SINC list. I told him that at the time I collected
them, the answer was no. He informed me that it is a violation
of the law to collect these. Ignorance is no excuse. Something
about possession. He said he would have to talk to his supervisor
as to what would be done about it. Okay, I said, let me know.
Two or three weeks later, he
called me again. He said I had to turn those shells over to
him. Today. With directions on how to get to his office, I packed
my shoe box with the offending pieces of biodegradable calcium
carbonate and took them to the KDWP District Office in Lenexa,
just up the road. The conservation officer was waiting for me
-- uniform, badge, gun, the whole thing. Intimidated? Not exactly
-- I was still too numb from having just moved, too grief-stricken
over leaving my friends behind, and too overwhelmed with the
culture shock of leaving a town of 16,000 and moving to a city
with a population of 120,000 to be too upset by this.
The officer looked over the shells,
but I had only the Latin names of the shells on their labels.
I showed him which was which. (It would be unfair to expect
law enforcement personnel to use anything but common names,
although it might help bridge any gap between them and the biologists/researchers
if they could learn to make use of the Latin.) He wrote me a
ticket. Misdemeanor violation. Just a warning -- no court appearance.
He took my specimens of Fusconaia flava, Lampsilis teres, Strophitus
undulatus, and Truncilla donaciformis. They would be used in
an upcoming ID clinic. I said good, they better not end up in
the trash. He said he wouldn't let that happen. He also stated
that because I was being so up-front, honest and cooperative,
he would approve and sign my permit application. His supervisor
had seen the TV thing earlier and wondered if I was the same
person. They could have come after me any time they wanted.
That part about possession bugged
me. What about the shells Doc wanted to loan me from the university's
museum for the illustrations? The conservation officer had already
called Doc's secretary to see if he really knew me. Doc had
to write a letter explaining what we were doing and that T,
E and SINC species would be included in the work. A letter came
back from the operations office in Pratt giving us their approval
and blessing. My permit arrived at the same time, allowing me
to collect legally. A report form of what was collected and
where must be mailed in at the end of the year. We conchologists
already excel at keeping good records (let's hope!), so this
is not too burdensome a requirement.
The conservation officer had
also made sure I understood that in order to collect only the
species allowed on my permit, I would have to do field identification.
That makes sense. A difficult task, but not impossible. From
their standpoint, it's narrowed down to twenty species. Not
really. Remember, Doc wants to know what I see, to assess range
and status. The biggest problem with not being able to collect
any species on the Endangered, Threatened or SINC list, even
of dead shells, is that biologists will have no voucher specimens.
Past instances of lacking voucher specimens have left scientific
data and reports subject to question; you can say you saw such-and-such,
but without the actual shell to back you up, credibility becomes
hazy. Even the experts can make a mistake. With as much study
and research as I could muster, I mentally prepared myself for
the challenge. Easier said than done. Leaning on the tailgate
of a pickup truck with books and shells makes for a humbling
experience. But I asked for it.
We went to a creek in Franklin
County. The farmer was nearby burning some brush. I told him
what I was doing; not only did he grant permission to collect,
but he pointed out where the riffles were. Middle Creek, as
it is called, runs into the Marais des Cygnes River (The name
means "Marsh of the Swans." Did not see any swans.)
The creek contained a few species not found in Cedar Creek.
Notably distressing was the fact that only very dead, worn shells
of Elliptio dilatata, Fusconaia flava, and Lampsilis siliquoides
could be seen. All three of these species are on the Kansas
SINC list. This particular area is extensively farmed and field
run-off is blamed as one of the major causes of declining numbers
In fact, recent news reports
concerning the Kaw and Missouri Rivers (and others) in northeastern
Kansas strongly suggest these rivers are dying. Significant
quantities of the chemicals atrazine (from farming) and chlordane
(from residual termite spraying) are being found. Warnings are
issued not to eat any bottom-feeding fish from these two rivers
more than once a week, or at all. How sad. You know it's getting
serious when you hear things like this. The mussels in those
rivers may well be gone now. Because they are so sensitive to
water quality, mussels are considered very important bioassayers
of the environment. They're in trouble, we're in trouble. People
like me are hardly a danger to these animals. It becomes increasingly
apparent things are not like they used to be.
Now I'm in the process of trying
to undo any damage or wrong impressions about mussels the TV
piece might have caused. I have found that people in Kansas
are either totally oblivious of the existence of these seemingly
insignificant creatures, or they think they should be shucked
for pearls. At least I didn't encourage that. Who knows how
many are lying around in someone's yard, carried home from a
fishing trip and admired for their beauty. Or how many occupy
a shoe box under a child's bed. There have to be some that became
a convenient soapdish in a few bathrooms.
Having experience in making decent
shell exhibits, I am in the position to put together a top-notch
educational exhibit for the Kansas State Fair. What better place
to educate the people of Kansas? The Kansas Department of Wildlife
and Parks already has a wonderful exhibit with other wildlife
there. Aquariums containing live native fish, and turtles and
snakes, another section with mammals and birds (taxidermy).
Quite interesting. Mussels are ignored. Of course, in order
to equally represent every species of wildlife in Kansas, a
museum is obviously the more appropriate place, and there are
a few good museums at some of the universities.
However, people who attend the
State Fair are not necessarily inclined to bother with museums.
If the general public is to comprehend the fact that the mussels
are in trouble and are protected by law, then there is a definite
advantage in mussels being exhibited under the auspices of the
Department of Wildlife and Parks, rather than sitting in an
isolated museum case with no explanation. Unfortunately, not
only are they not seen at the fair, but you never find them
mentioned in the literature or brochures produced for public
information on fishing and boating regulations. At least I haven't
seen them mentioned. How is a person to know that these animals
are protected by Kansas law?
Actually, a commendable amount
of work has been done in Kansas on behalf of the mussel. Reports
have been published for years; they just aren't made available
to the general public unless requested. Other states have information
published specifically on mussels, but there again, I have it
because I knew of it and requested it. A while back I was standing
in line at a local lumberyard. The lady in front of me had on
a shirt with words on the back that I will never forget. It
said, "In the end, we save what we love, we love what we
understand, we understand only what we have knowledge of."
Along with stream dewatering, impoundments, siltation, pollution,
and intense commercial harvest (yes, that's done here too),
ignorance has to be counted as another of the mussels' enemies.
At one time, I too was one of the ignorant.
Back to the State Fair exhibit.
As much as I think it would be a worthwhile project, and I seriously
considered it, the obstacles which would have to be overcome
would make it a major hassle. How so? In my contact with the
conservation officer, I was made aware that there are strict
laws and regulations regarding the transport of mussels. In
making inquiry about the specifics, I found that transportation
is possible with permission from KDWP. Requesting permission
involves writing a letter stating the purpose, quantity, and
species, and details on the destination, etc. That doesn't sound
too difficult, does it? Here's the problem: If the request is
approved, permission to transport is granted only for the shells
collected in the same year as the permit allowing for their
collection. In addition, the transport must take place in that
same year as well. Ridiculous, you say? Maybe so, but not to
them, because it's the law.
Imagine trying to do any sort
of worthy educational exhibit just with mussel shells collected
legally in one year. All the really cool stuff is off limits
and almost gone anyway. For a State Fair exhibit, I could borrow
shells I don't have, but there again, more paperwork. I don't
have time for it right now. Maybe later. These animals are almost
smothered in silt and paperwork. Please don't get the impression
I'm picking on the Department of Wildlife and Parks in Kansas
or any other state. I have the utmost respect for them. If it
were not for them and the laws they enforce, wildlife could
be in much worse trouble than it is now. Remember the rainforest.
On the subject of permits, I
must make mention of the other collecting permit required in
the state of Kansas, and that is the commercial harvesting permit.
Commercial harvesting is done in Kansas, as well as in other
states, not for pearls per se as some might think, but rather
for the shell material for use in the cultured pearl industry.
Shells are shipped to Japan where beads are made from them.
These beads are placed inside marine oysters to cause them to
form pearls. Such commercial collecting of mussels in Kansas
is restricted to four species of Unionids, Quadrula quadrula,
Amblema plicata, Quadrula metanevra, and Potamilus purpuratus.
Harvesting is limited to certain southeastern watersheds. Fees
for the commercial harvesting permit are considerably higher
than for the scientific collecting permit, and there is also
a separate buter's permit. In 1995, Kansas issued 28 resident,
24 non-resident, and 5 buyer's permits. Proposals have been
made to change fees and size limitsto match those of other states
that are more restrictive. Because of the reduction in numbers
of mussels, it is the opinion of the biologists here that mussel
harvesting cannot continue indefinitely.
Mussel refuges have been established
in some areas to help reduce the pressure from harvesting, and
to preserve some of the precious mussel population so they can
reproduce. Studies show that the refuges currently in place
in Kansas have been effective in accomplishing this.
Are you thoroughly discouraged
from coming to Kansas to collect mussels? You are supposed to
be. Most of you are accustomed to reading here articles on exotic
shell collecting trips to isolated Pacific islands and envying
the finds. Sorry to disappoint you -- this started out that
way, but somehow it turned out to be more of an editorial than
entertainment. But hopefully it left you all better informed.
In summary, I can conclude that
the researchers and biologists are doing what they can and the
law enforcement people are just doing their jobs. I'll try to
stay out of their way as best I can. No, I take part of that
back. I like the biologists too much, and am so much like them,
I cannot stay out of their way. Even with all the regulations,
I persist in learning more about these fascinating life forms,
in having fun exploring the creeks, and I am truly enjoying
There's no place like home.
Species of Mussels (Family Unionidae)
Found in Two Kansas Counties
(Names given follow the current listing given in Freshwater
Mussels of Kansas -- Register of Taxa, Synonyms, and Assumed
Misidentifications by Mark E. Eberle, Sternberg Museum of Natural
History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas. Report No.
63, November 28, 1994.)
Cedar Creek, Chase County: Amblema
plicata, Fusconaia flava, Lampsilis cardium, Lampsilis teres,
Lasmigona complanata, Leptodea fragilis, Ligumia subrostrata,
Potamilus purpuratus, Pyganodon grandis, Quadrula pustulosa,
Quadrula quadrula, Strophitus undulatus, Tritogonia verrucosa,
Middle Creek, Franklin County
Amblema plicata, Elliptio dilatata, Fusconaia flava, Lampsilis
siliquoidea, Lasmigona complanata, Leptodea fragilis, Ligumia
subrostrata, Pyganodon grandis, Quadrula quadrula, Toxolasma
parvus, Uniomerus tetralasmus, Utterbackia imbecillis
Also seen in both localities
were the Fingernail Clams of the family Sphaeriidae, species
not identified. Not seen at either of the above localities but
also found in Kansas is the Asian Clam, Corbicula fluminea (Family
Corbiculidae), which has been introduced.
SOME REFERENCES I HAVE FOUND
Bogan, A.E. and G.M. Davis. 1990. The Unionidae of Pennsylvania:
Rare, Endangered, Extinct. 1990 Report No. 3. Wild Resources
Conservation Fund: State of Pennsylvania.
Busby, W.H. and G. Horak. 1992.
Unionid Mussels in Kansas: Overview of Conservation Efforts
and Harvest Regulations. Kansas Biological Survey and Kansas
Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Collins, J.T. 1974. Amphibians
and Reptiles in Kansas. University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Cope, C.H. 1982. Kansas Freshwater
Mussel Investigation Project Completion Report. NMFS Project
2-378-R. Kansas Fish and Game Commission.
Harris, J.L. and M.E. Gordon.
1990. Arkansas Mussels. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Little
Howells, R.G. 1994. Quick Reference
Guide: Freshwater Mussels of the Rio Grande. Texas Parks and
Wildlife Department, Inland Fisheries. Heart of the Hills Research
Kansas Fishing Regulations Summary.
1995. Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Miller, E.J. 1992. Evaluation
of Verdigris River Freshwater Mussel Refuge in 1991. Kansas
Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Murray, H.D. and A.B. Leonard.
1962. Handbook of Unionid Mussels in Kansas. University of Kansas,
Oesch, R.D. 1984. Missouri Naiades.
A Guide to the Mussels of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation,
Stolzenburg, W. 1992. The Mussels'
Message. Nature Conservancy Magazine.
Watters, G. Thomas. 1994. Unionidae
of the Big Darby Creek System in Central Ohio, U.S.A. Malacological
_____. 1994. North American Freshwater
Mussels: Part 1, The Quick and the Dead. American Conchologist,
_____. 1994. North American Freshwater
Mussels: Part 2, Identification, Collection, and the Art of
Zen Malacology. American Conchologist, 22(3): 11-13.