It’s a good thing Michael Lucid likes gastropods, because for three weeks this fall, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist was up to his elbows in them. At an office near Sandpoint, Lucid and a team of scientists sorted some 6,700 snails and slugs collected from around the state, identifying and labeling slimy samples — 69 species altogether — with names straight out of JK Rowling: the Thinlip Tightcoil, the Smoky Taildropper, the Humped Coin. “We’re having ourselves a gastropod party,” Lucid told me back in October, in the throes of research. “A gastropody.”
Fish & Game’s gastropody may not have featured disco balls and smoke machines, but what it lacked in glamor, it made up in scientific merit. The slugfest was an essential component of Idaho’s State Wildlife Action Plan, an enormous, once-in-a-decade assessment that’s due in 2015. And Idaho’s not alone: states around the country, including many in the West, are currently scrambling to finish their own SWAPs, vital documents that will govern the next ten years of state-level conservation.
The first SWAPs were completed in 2005, after Congress mandated that each state prepare one in order to receive funding from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant programs. (Back then, they carried the less acronym-friendly moniker of Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy.) The idea was straightforward: Assess the health of statewide wildlife, identify potential threats, and figure out a strategy for protecting vulnerable animals. By preventing species from becoming rare in the first place, the thinking went, states could preempt wildlife from being listed under the Endangered Species Act — and avoid the expense, land-use restrictions and loss of autonomy that often attend listings.
While SWAPs are conceptually simple, preparing one is a Herculean task. Idaho contains a whopping 229 species of “greatest conservation need” — an eclectic group of critters, from the wolverine to the pinwheel snail to the Idaho giant salamander, deemed to require the most attention. Lucid and his colleagues spent four years setting up camera traps, slogging through ponds, and sifting leaf litter to gather as much information about those cryptic critters as possible. By late May of next year, Fish & Game expects to have synthesized its data in a draft for public review; states’ final plans are due to the Fish & Wildlife Service by October 1, 2015. (Some states, including Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, submitted theirs years early.)
Though many of the creatures prioritized in Idaho’s original action plan, like Snake River salmon, will find their way into the new one, the 2015 SWAP will likely differ in some important ways. The pygmy rabbit, for instance, was a focus of the state’s 2005 plan, triggering research that revealed that the diminutive lagomorph was more widely distributed in Idaho than anyone had realized. As a result, the feds didn’t need to intervene. “Work that’s come out of our plan has absolutely influenced decisions on listing species,” said Rita Dixon, Idaho’s SWAP coordinator.
Conversely, some species, like the recently listed yellow-billed cuckoo, will feature more prominently this time around. New threats have sprung up in the last decade, too — bats, for instance, are harmed by white-nose syndrome and the proliferation of wind turbines, which also cut down raptors. The West’s landscapes and wildlife are in perpetual flux; SWAPs are among our best barometers of change.
Of course, identifying threats is merely a precursor to saving species. In that mission, SWAPs can only go so far. Breaching dams might be the best way to help the Snake’s salmon, but Dixon said the political obstacles are prohibitive. “If the constraints on an action are so high that they render it pointless to even think about, it won’t be in the plan,” she added.
For Lucid’s beloved gastropods, the hurdles are not so daunting. Conserving fairly immobile species like the magnum mantleslug — considered possibly extinct within Idaho’s borders, until surveys uncovered them at 45 sites around the state — may not require dramatic action. “In a grazing area, you could just put a fence around its range,” Lucid speculated. “It’s a lot easier to protect a slug than a wolverine.” Whether you’re concerned about the fate of minute invertebrates or charismatic carnivores, the West’s SWAPs are the documents worth watching.
Ben Goldfarb is a Seattle-based correspondent for High Country News.