Western Springsnails on the Brink of Extinction

Scientists, Conservationist Act to Protect Indicators of Watershed Health
For Immediate Release: July 28, 2004

Laramie, WY- A coalition of scientists and conservationists filed a petition today requesting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service extend Endangered Species Act protection to the Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails, three relatives of the Idaho springsnail, which is currently an endangered species.

A recent study suggests the Idaho springsnail may be the same as three other springsnail species: the Jackson Lake springsnail, Harney Lake springsnail, and Columbia springsnail. Citing this study, the coalition has petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue protecting the Idaho springsnail and extend protection to the three other species, which scientists agree are critically imperiled and on the brink of extinction.

“The science clearly shows the Idaho, Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails are threatened
with extinction,” said Dr. Peter Bowler, one of the petitioners and a scientist who has studied the Idaho springsnail for over 25 years. “Whether they’re all one species or four separate species, they need protection.”

Once common in Jackson Lake in northwestern Wyoming, the Jackson Lake springsnail has declined by over
75% because of habitat loss and now lives at only one location. The Harney Lake springsnail was once found in springs throughout eastern Oregon, but has declined by over 60% because of habitat loss and is now found at only four locations. The Columbia springsnail was once widespread in the lower Columbia River, but has declined because of dams and is now found at only six locations.

The Idaho, Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails are described as “indicator species,” meaning the health of their populations signals the health of freshwater habitats. The snails are dependent upon relatively undisturbed habitats, making them excellent indicator of natural watershed health.

“These springsnails are like the warning light on the dashboard of our environment,” said Jeremy Nichols, Endangered Species Program Director for Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “Protecting these imperiled species now ultimately protects the health and sustainability of our watersheds for today’s and future generations.”

Scientific reports continue to indicate the Idaho springsnail is threatened with extinction. While historically found at 10 locations, the snail is found at only 5 locations in the Middle Snake River in between Bancroft Springs and Weiser. The snail depends on relatively undisturbed areas of the Middle Snake River with cold, clean, flowing water and sand or gravel bottoms. Dams operated by the Idaho Power company, such as C.J.
Strike, continue to restrict water flows and degrade water quality. A recent report by the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that Idaho Power dams will continue to harm the springsnail for the next 50 years. Agricultural runoff and overallocation of Snake River waters continue to pose hurdles to the species’ recovery. Recent surveys by scientists have also reported population declines.

“The Snake River is the lifeblood of southern Idaho, yet it continues to be polluted and degraded,” said Sara Denniston Eddie with Advocates for the West. “The endangerment of the Idaho springsnail is a symptom of this larger problem, one that we must take responsibility for to stem the loss of clean water and wildlife.”

Last month, the State of Idaho and the Idaho and the Idaho Power Company quietly submitted a petition to remove the Idaho springsnail from the endangered species list. Their petition cites the recent study suggesting the Idaho springsnail is the same as the Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails. The petition claims populations are now more abundant and not threatened. At most, however, the study suggests an additional 11 populations exist, an extremely low number considering that populations of the Idaho springsnail were once widespread throughout the Middle Snake River. In addition, all of these populations face serious threats to their survival.

“It’s a slippery slope at best,” said Noah Greenwald, Conservation Biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Not only are these species incredibly rare to begin with, but the best available scientific information shows that while you may have a few more populations, they’re all threatened with extinction.”

The State of Idaho’s petition also erroneously describes the current distribution of the Idaho springsnail. According to Dr. Peter Bowler, “The distribution map is extremely misleading and is riddled with errors. The species does not occur above Bliss Dam and is mostly dead below that. This is mostly a map of the now largely dead historic distribution.”

In 2002, the State of Idaho and Idaho Power also submitted a petition to delist the Idaho springsnail, but subsequently withdrew it because of numerous and significant errors.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would ensure a valuable and integral part of the web of life in Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington is protected.

“Springsnails, like the Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails and their relatives, are an integral part of the web of life wherever they are found,” said Scott Hoffman Black, Executive Director of The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “They consume organic material in the water and recycle plant and animal waste. Fish, amphibians, birds, and insects also feed on springsnails, forming an important
link in the food chain.”

Endangered Species Act protection for the Jackson Lake, Harney Lake, and Columbia springsnails would mean that their habitat would be protected and restored.  “The Endangered Species Act is a safety net for fish and wildlife on the brink of extinction,” said Katie Fite with Western Watersheds Project. “We owe it to our
children and grandchildren to be good stewards of the environment and leave behind a legacy of protecting endangered species, like these springsnails, and the special places they call home.”

The petitioners include Dr. Peter Bowler, a University of California ecologist and springsnail expert, Wyoming-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, a regional conservation group dedicated to protecting native species and their habitats, Western Watersheds Project, an Idaho group working to protect the health of western waters, the Center for Biological Diversity, a national species conservation group, The Xerces Society, an international nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to preserving the diversity of life through the conservation of invertebrates, and Center for Native Ecosystems, a group dedicated to protecting native species and their habitats in the Rocky Mountain Region.

For More Information Contact:
Jeremy Nichols, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance; (307) 742-7978
Sara Denniston Eddie, Advocates for the West; (208) 342-7024
Scott Hoffman Black, The Xerces Society, (503) 534-2706
Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project; (208) 429-1679
Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity; (503) 243-6643