Judge bumps snail off endangered species list

  • A tiny Bruneau hot springs snail

    Jay Gore/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The tiny Bruneau hot springs snail is having a large impact in Idaho - and perhaps the entire country.

On Dec. 14, U.S. District Judge Frank Ryan removed the 4-millimeter animal from the endangered species list. It was the first successful challenge of an animal or plant listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Ryan's ruling, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred by taking too long to act on the petition to list the species, could place the listing of dozens of other endangered species in doubt.

The listing of the snail in 1992 threatened to limit how much water farmers could pump from an aquifer to irrigate 18,000 acres around the Bruneau River. The Farm Bureau, Owyhee County and Owyhee Cattlemen's Association sued Fish and Wildlife to stop the listing, which had first been proposed in 1985.

At that time, Sens. James McClure and Steve Symms, R-Idaho, pushed by the same groups, threatened to delay funding for all endangered species if Fish and Wildlife Director Frank Dunkle did not delay the snail's listing. In exchange, Fish and Wildlife got funds in 1988 to look for other snail colonies (HCN, 11/30/93).

Laird Lucas, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies in Boise, said the farm groups forced the manipulation of the listing process that they eventually challenged, successfully.

"They set a train on a course for a wreck, then stood back and took advantage of it when the train wrecked," he said.

Mike Tracy, an Idaho Farm Bureau spokesman, said the agency still must accept the blame. "If they had followed the letter of the law, they would have just withdrawn the decision," he said. "They didn't have enough data in the first place."

Federal biologists and environmentalists say there is plenty of evidence that the snail is still endangered and point to a part of Judge Ryan's order which says the agency, despite its procedural mistakes, "articulated a rational connection between the factors identified and the choice made" to list the species.

Still, environmentalists are worried the recent decision could open the door to more challenges of endangered species listings. During the Reagan years, political pressure delayed the listing process for dozens of species, said Lucas. That includes four other threatened and endangered mollusks on the Snake River. The situation has threatened to delay Idaho Falls' Shelley hydroelectric project.

Lucas said the Bruneau snail listing was "picked by the wise-use movement as a target case" to test its argument against agency listing delays. "I wouldn't be surprised to see this same argument cropping up elsewhere," he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has not decided how it will respond to the decision, but the involvement of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could influence the agency's direction. On a Dec. 19 tour of the hot springs that support the last colonies of the snail, Babbitt told ranchers, environmentalists and government scientists that the snail problem was simply a matter of better groundwater management, reports AP.

"We can get it solved," Babbitt said. "Perhaps that will make any further listing of the snail unnecessary."

Babbitt called on the state to develop a groundwater management plan that will assure adequate water for the snails. Lucas welcomed Babbitt's interest in the issue, but said the Land and Water Fund and the two groups it represents, the Idaho Conservation League and the Committee for Idaho's High Desert, will likely appeal Ryan's decision, even if the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't.

The writer is a staff writer for the Idaho Falls Post Register. Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

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