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Las Cruces Sun-News, June 6, 2011

Habitat designated for endangered snail
By Milan Simonich

SANTA FE - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today will designate about 520 acres in southern New Mexico and west Texas as protected habitat for three endangered snails and a freshwater shrimp.

The animals are the Roswell springsnail, Koster's springsnail, the Pecos assiminea snail and Noel's amphipod.

"This is great news for these rare creatures, found in only a few wet spots in the desert," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City.

New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish petitioned the federal government in 1985 to list the three snails as endangered. It took almost 20 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make that designation, and then another six years for the listing protecting the homes of the four aquatic animals, Robinson said.

A breakdown of their preserved habitat will be published today in the Federal Register.

Managing and maintaining the animals' critical habitat will cost taxpayers up to $1.5 million during the next 30 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service's analysis.

About 76 acres are in Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge and a small wetland nearby in the city of Roswell. Bitter Lake covers 24,500 acres, so the animals' protected area is relatively small.

Another 445 acres are in west Texas, said Susan Oetker, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The aquatic animals' habitat in Texas is in the Diamond Y Spring in Pecos County and the East Sandia Springs in Reeves County.

Jeff Sanchez, a biologist at Bitter Lake, said a much wider area once was proposed as protected habitat for the snails and shrimp. But the U.S. government streamlined it to match the places where the animals occur, he said.

The snails and shrimp all are found in the same types of springs at the New Mexico refuge.

"They need that really fresh, clear water emerging from the ground," Sanchez said in an interview.

Robinson said government protection for the four invertebrates was critical as desert landscapes change.

He said the main threats to the animals are groundwater pumping and contamination of the pure water that they need to live.

Diamond Y is the last large spring flowing in Pecos County, Robinson said. The rest have dried up.

Southeastern New Mexico and West Texas are a battleground over another animal - the dunes sagebrush lizard - and whether it should be listed by the federal government as an endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director will decide by mid-December.

The issue has been controversial, as politicians and oil executives in both states have said a designation for the lizard would hurt the industry.

Robinson's organization, though, says the lizard's habitat is a minuscule part of the Permian Basin and will have little or no effect on ranching or drilling jobs.

Conservation groups said protection for the four aquatic animals involved buffering extraction industries.

"We're pleased that Bitter Lake will receive an increased legal shield, given the threat from oil and gas drilling to this unique biodiversity hotspot," said Nicole Rosmarino, a biologist with WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe. "Just one oil spill in their habitat could extinguish these fragile species forever, and the service should guard against that threat."

Natural-gas extraction and farming also are industries in Bitter Lake and its watershed.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton