n crystal streams and springs, vernal pools and ponds,
flowing rivers and rivulets, an abundance of life thrives in the freshwaters
of the United States. At one time, few realized that America's waters
were so rich and diverse. Beginning in 1990, a series of studies spearheaded
by Larry Master, NatureServe's chief zoologist, revealed that the United
States was a global leader in diversity of freshwater species. It ranks
first in the world for groups such as crayfishes, mussels, turtles, snails,
Master and his colleagues also made a more sobering
discovery. Freshwater species were not just remarkably diverse, they were
highly threatened. More than two-thirds of freshwater mollusks are at
risk, about half of crayfishes, forty percent of amphibians such as frogs
and salamanders, and nearly forty percent of fishes. These numbers dwarfed
the rates for groups receiving considerably more conservation attention,
such as mammals and birds. Moreover, freshwater biodiversity has its own
set of hotspots, such as the Tennessee-Cumberland River basins, that land-based
conservation plans were missing.
These findings, highlighted in our seminal report Rivers
of Life, focused conservation attention on the issue of freshwater imperilment.
Foundations and environmental groups rushed to protect the rivers and
streams of the Southeast, where dozens of fish and mussels face extinction.
Natural heritage programs devoted increased resources to previously overlooked
groups such as crayfishes, aquatic insects, and cave-dwellers. Aquatic
ecosystems became a key part of regional conservation planning. Today,
NatureServe's work on freshwater species and habitats continues, and conservation
more than ever protects the diversity of life in our lands and waters.