The Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species triage

Buried in petitions to list new species, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a system for prioritizing who gets help first.

 

Right now, in the Black River south of Carlsbad, New Mexico, rare Texas hornshell mussels are trying to multiply. It’s a bizarre and complicated process: Male mussels spit sperm into the river, where the females catch it. After brooding fertilized eggs for about a month, they chuck the larvae into the water, too. There, the would-be mussels hope to be eaten by certain kinds of fish, attaching to their gills and forming parasitic cysts. Then they develop into juveniles before cutting loose from the fish and wriggling to the river bottom, where they can live for up to 20 years.

Texas hornshells are native to the Pecos and Rio Grande basins of southern New Mexico and Texas, where they help maintain water quality by filtering out sediment and other particulates. They’re the only surviving species of New Mexico’s eight native mussels, and the stretch of river near Carlsbad is one of their last strongholds.

Their troubles are nothing new, though. In 1989, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the Texas hornshell as a candidate for the endangered species list, but it had too little information about them to support listing. In 2001, after studies showed that the mollusks were being harmed by low flows in rivers and water pollution, the agency decided protection was justified. But it still couldn’t list them because too many other, higher-priority species also needed protection. Now, the mussel’s time may have finally come: In August, the agency proposed listing it as endangered.

Texas hornshell mussels from the Black River in New Mexico.
Joel Lusk/USFWS

Most species that have landed on the endangered species list in recent years got there when they did as a result of litigation by green groups, and the Texas hornshell mussel is no exception. Almost no one is happy with this pattern, though. “(If) the Service is simply responding to lawsuits, it’s not being very strategic,” or necessarily focusing on the plants and animals in greatest need, says Ya-Wei Li, an endangered species expert with Defenders of Wildlife. So Fish and Wildlife is now working to reform its process for listing species.

It has proposed prohibiting so-called “mega-petitions,” where environmental groups ask the agency to protect up to hundreds of species at a time, and it recently finalized a new five-tier system for prioritizing decisions on petitions. First in line are species that data clearly show are critically imperiled. Lower down are species for which states are already developing conservation plans, as well as species the agency lacks data on.

The agency simply can’t keep up with all the petitions it gets to list species, says Fish and Wildlife spokesman Brian Hires. Environmentalists filed petitions on behalf of 1,230 species between 2007 and 2010, enough to almost double the number protected by the Endangered Species Act over the previous 30 years. The overwhelmed agency rarely meets its own deadlines for responding, and so environmentalists often sue in response.

The mussel is one of 757 species included in a 2011 legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, in which the agency agreed to deadlines for clearing its considerable backlog. “The states have been frustrated, because we feel like litigation shouldn’t drive conservation,” says Nick Wiley, vice president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Wiley says states — the feds’ main partners in endangered species work — are generally pleased with the planned reforms, which they hope will help them prioritize their own data collection and conservation work.

Some environmental groups are also supportive. “This is a very good move for the Service to take control of its own destiny,” says Li. But others argue that the reforms could consign at-risk wildlife to bureaucratic purgatory. “It creates excuses for ongoing delays in decisions on whether species should be protected,” says Tierra Curry, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. She fears that lower-priority species will slip closer to extinction while they wait for conservation plans or studies that could bump them up in line.

The system also “biases decisions towards popular and well-studied species,” she says, mainly birds and mammals. But some of the most imperiled groups are also the least studied — freshwater mollusks, for instance. The fact that we understand the outlines of the Texas hornshell’s lifecycle makes it fairly unusual among mollusks, Curry notes: For many of the creatures, basic population data doesn’t even exist.

Mussels, snails and insects may well get shortchanged under the new system, Li says. In a perfect world, Fish and Wildlife would be flush with funding, and wouldn’t need to prioritize. “Nobody likes to make those judgment calls,” he says. But relative to the number of species it’s charged with saving, the agency’s funding is decreasing, not increasing, he points out. One way or another, “there are going to be species that come out ahead, and some that fall behind.”

Contributing editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...