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For Immediate Release, March 30, 2010

Contacts:  Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495          
Dr. Phil Rosen, University of Arizona, (520) 404-2366

Rare Tucson Shovel-nosed Snake Warrants Protection as Endangered Species
But Will Not Receive Federal Protection

TUCSON, Ariz.— More than five years after a petition was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that the Tucson shovel-nosed snake warrants protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, but that such protection is precluded by listing of other higher priority species.

“Given extensive urban sprawl throughout its habitat, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake needs protection, not bureaucratic delay and foot-dragging,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center. “Today’s decision that protection for the Tucson shovel-nosed snake is warranted but precluded is plainly illegal.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, species can only be designated warranted but precluded if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is making expeditious progress toward listing other species. In recent years, however, the agency has been listing very few. Under the Bush administration only 62 species were listed, compared to 522 under Clinton and 231 under the first Bush presidency. To date, the Obama administration has only finalized listing of two species, although it has announced a final listing for 48 species from Kauai, Hawaii, which were first proposed under the previous administration. The Center has a lawsuit pending in Washington, D.C., arguing that continued delay of protection for the Tucson shovel-nosed snake and 251 other species similarly stuck in the warranted but precluded purgatory is illegal because of the agency’s failure to make expeditious progress.

“With a 275-percent increase in the listing budget between 2002 and 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has the resources to list all of the species known to warrant protection,” said Greenwald. “All that is needed is the political will and a can-do attitude.”

Once a common species of northeastern Pima County and southern Pinal and Maricopa counties, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake is now rarely seen. The primary causes of the snake’s sharp decline are agriculture and urban sprawl. Like other shovel-nosed snakes, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake is uniquely adapted to “swim” through sandy soils using its spade-shaped snout, countersunk lower jaw, and valve-like nostrils. In part related to this adaptation, the snake is dependent on very specific habitat requirements, including sandier soils found on the level terrain of valley floors. These valley-floor habitat requirements make it particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction from either agriculture or urban sprawl.

“Because of a combination of historic agriculture and rapid urban sprawl from Phoenix, Tucson, Casa Grande, and other communities, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake has become increasingly rare. It will be at high risk of extinction if proactive measures are not taken to halt urbanization of its habitat,” said Dr. Phil Rosen, herpetologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

Pima County, the town of Marana, and the city of Tucson have developed “habitat conservation plans” that included the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, but none of these plans have been finalized. This fact in part led the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider “the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms a threat to the Tucson shovel-nosed snake.” One reason the plans were not completed was that the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was removed from the list of endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently conducting a review of the pygmy owl’s status to determine if it should again be protected as endangered, but as with the snake is not moving quickly to provide this protection.

“The Tucson shovel-nosed snake, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, and hundreds of other Sonoran Desert species need habitat protection to survive,” said Greenwald. “Protection of these two would go a long way toward ensuring that remaining intact desert habitat is protected from development.”

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