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SAVING GREAT BASIN SPRINGSNAILS AND WATERSHEDS

Dotting the vast, arid expanses of the Great Basin and Mojave deserts are precious springs housing improbable and rare forms of life that, while small, play a huge role in their ecosystems. Springsnails — tiny and inconspicuous freshwater mollusks — in fact help make life possible for countless other species sharing their desert-oasis homes, converting algae, microorganisms and decaying matter into edibles for other invertebrates, fish, birds, turtles, amphibians and small mammals. Their presence shapes water chemistry, nutrient cycling, and rates of productivity and breakdown. Without them, food chains would unravel and wetland living conditions could fall fatally out of whack.

But many of these unobtrusive invertebrates are slipping through the cracks. Groundwater withdrawal threatens to dry up the springs they live in, while water diversion, grazing, and human recreation damages their habitat and global warming is already altering springs’ water-flow patterns. And with their limited mobility and restricted distribution, these sensitive springsnails can’t move or adapt quickly enough to survive without protection.

Accordingly, in February 2009 the Center filed a scientific petition to grant Endangered Species Act protection and designate critical habitat for 42 imperiled springsnails of the Great Basin and Mojave ecosystems in Nevada, California, and Utah. Finally, in 2011, the Center reached a landmark agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service compelling the agency to move forward in the protection process for 757 species, including all 42 Great Basin springsnails. The Service determined that four springsnails —  the Lake Valley, hardy, flag and bifid duct springsnail — “may warrant” protection as endangered species but failed to make a final determination within 12 months, as required. The Center filed suit over that issue in September 2012.

Fourteen of the species are found each in a single location, and 39 of them occur each at 10 or fewer sites. All 42 of the springsnails are in desperate need of immediate federal safeguards. Protecting these snails will help protect whole ecosystems, not only because they’re critical to those ecosystems’ functioning, but also because countless other species — including humans — also depend on the health of the watersheds they need to survive.

Amargosa River photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Stan Shebs, under the GNU Free Documentation License