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SAVING THE TUCSON SHOVEL-NOSED SNAKE

The American dream of owning a suburban home has led millions to settle on the outskirts of Tucson and Phoenix; today, more than 80 percent of Arizona’s swiftly growing population lives in the Sonoran Desert. This is bad news for the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, a highly adapted animal that swims through sandy desert soils and preys on everything from beetle larvae to scorpions. Its specialized nature and narrow habitat requirements make it vulnerable to habitat destruction from agriculture and urban sprawl.

At 17 inches or less, the Tucson shovel-nosed snake may be small, but it makes the most out of its size. Living in the sandy soils found on valley floors in the upper Sonoran Desert, the snake has adapted to swim through sandy desert soils using its spade-shaped mouth. It deftly captures and restrains scorpions, which it includes among its primary prey.

Dependent on specific ecological requirements in an area that’s been heavily altered by agriculture and urban sprawl, the species has lost almost three-quarters of its habitat in its core range. And once desert has been bulldozed for development or agriculture, the snake does not return.

To protect the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, the Center and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection filed a petition to protect it under the Endangered Species Act on December 15, 2004. In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally found that the snake warrants protection — but merely added the species to the “candidate list” to await actual protection indefinitely. While the snake is considered a priority vulnerable species in the draft Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan — and the plan could eventually provide some protection for the snake — most of its remaining occupied habitat is outside Pima County’s jurisdiction, so the species needs immediate habitat protection on the federal level.

Happily, in 2011 the Center reached a landmark agreement compelling the Service to move forward on protection decisions for 757 species, including the Tucson shovel-nosed snake. Federal listing — a proposal the agreement calls for in 2014 — could help the snake get the habitat protection its long-term survival requires.

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2004 Federal Endangered Species Act listing petition

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Contact: Noah Greenwald
Photo © Robin Silver