In the rolling foothills of central New Mexico’s Chupadera Mountains, groundwater seeps through volcanic gravel, forming a shallow spring stream where a tiny snail makes its home. The Chupadera springsnail’s conical, translucent shell is no bigger than a poppy seed; the animal scrapes algae and microscopic organisms off rocks with a toothlike structure at the end of its snout. Twenty-seven years after it was originally designated a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, the snail officially became protected on Aug. 12.
“I’m glad that this little creature is finally getting the protection it needs,” says Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “It’s been a long time coming for this particular snail.”
The Endangered Species Act is known for its success in bringing declining plant and animal populations back from the brink of extinction. The bald eagle population increased 25-fold after the bird was listed, and the grizzly bear’s numbers more than doubled; neither animal is now considered threatened. But the snail’s situation is different: Its habitat lies entirely on private land. In fact, all of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s information about the species is more than a decade old. Since 1999, the landowner has refused New Mexico Game and Fish—the local entity charged with monitoring the population—access to the property.
Highland Springs Ranch, a subsidiary of Arizona-based Brooks Companies, sells 20- to 340-acre land parcels near Socorro in subdivisions with names that evoke a wilderness retreat. At Whispering Meadows or Mountain Shadows, buyers can enjoy the presence of “abundant wildlife” such as sandhill cranes or Arctic geese, according to the ranch’s website.
The Chupadera springsnail seems a less welcome resident. Originally living in two springs, one called Willow Spring and another unnamed spring less than half a mile away, the snail vanished from the latter location by 1998. When Game and Fish visited Highland Springs Ranch that year, they noted that the former habitat “was heavily impacted by cattle because it was devoid of riparian vegetation, and the gravel and cobbles were covered with mud and manure.” The agency had noted the grazing’s impact since 1986, when it recorded that the spring “was already a series of small stock tanks for cattle and horses with very little riparian vegetation.”
“Cattle tend to trample riparian areas,” Jones says. “They destroy streamside vegetation through grazing and trampling, which causes the banks to fail and sediment to erode into the stream. There’s also the problem of cattle waste—they’re using a stream as their toilet.”
Last year, Highland Springs Ranch told Game and Fish that they weren’t grazing cattle next to Willow Spring, the snail’s only remaining habitat, but didn’t allow the agency onto the property to make sure. Both springs have also been dammed and diminished by groundwater pumping, according to federal documents.
Highland Springs Ranch manager Michael Sawhill tells SFR that the last time Game and Fish asked to come in and check on the snail, “They had already been on the property, and they were aware it was still there.”
“At that point there was really no reason to do anything,” Sawhill says.
Although the snail’s new status as officially endangered is a big step symbolically, it doesn’t open the ranch’s gates to Game and Fish or the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, barring special circumstances, Highland Springs Ranch will continue to have total control over the snail’s habitat and the power to keep the government out.
“Unless [the landowner] invites us in there to look around, there’s nothing we can do right now,” says USFWS spokesman Tom Buckley. “Critical habitat designation does not open the gates for us on private property.”
WildEarth Guardians legal counsel Jay Tutchton says USFWS could take a stronger position.
“If the federal government wants to come on your land, the federal government can come on your land,” Tutchton tells SFR. “They just have to have the intestinal fortitude to do so. And the Fish and Wildlife Service is like the class weakling of federal government agencies. I guarantee if [the Department of] Homeland Security wanted to come on this guy’s land—or [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] or [the Department of Defense]—they’d be on his land tomorrow.”
Buckley points out that snail census-taking is a little different from matters of national security.
“If somebody’s violating the Homeland Security Act, I’m sure [DHS] can go on their land,” Buckley says. “But we can’t do that. We’re biologists!”
And a more aggressive approach is often unnecessary anyway, according to Buckley. More than half of the nation’s endangered species live only on private land—but that doesn’t always make them harder to protect.
“Many times we get landowners that are very cooperative, both in letting us on and in taking certain actions that would protect an area,” Buckley says.
In October 2011, Highland Springs Ranch sent a letter to USFWS indicating that the ranch was “considering allowing the USFWS and/or NMDGF to collect a sample [of the snail] for captive propagation.” But as of the snail’s endangered status ruling this July, no such invitation had officially been extended. And the October 2011 letter also challenges the snail’s endangered species listing, based on the opinion of a private environmental consultant who reportedly found 22 of them on an inch-long piece of gravel.
Economist Jeffrey Michael has criticized the Endangered Species Act for creating tension between private landowners and USFWS. In a 2000 article, he writes that the law creates an incentive for landowners to eradicate endangered species on their land in order to avoid dealing with its requirements. It fosters an attitude of “shoot, shovel and shut up,” Michael writes.
But Tutchton argues that whether they know it or not, it’s in landowners’ economic interest to protect endangered species on their land. Private landowners can receive federal money to help protect the species, or get the federal government to intervene if a neighbor’s actions are damaging its habitat. For instance, rural landowners in Nevada have been able to use the presence of endangered species—including aquatic snails—to keep their water from being diverted to Las Vegas’ municipal water system.
“If you protect the snail, you protect the water,” says Smithsonian Institute invertebrate biologist Robert Hershler. “That’s part of the take-home message.”
Especially given the market fluctuations that make cattle ranching economically risky, the presence of this “little fella” could actually increase the value of Highland Springs Ranch, Tutchton says.
“The government will now have to write a recovery plan for the snail [under the ESA], and they could look at paying this guy to basically become the keeper of the snail,” Tutchton says.
If, at some point in the future, the landowners want something from the federal government—permits for drilling federally owned oil and gas under the land, for instance—they will have to meet USFWS halfway and agree to protect the snail’s habitat. Otherwise, it’s up to Highland Springs Ranch to change its perspective on the Chupadera springsnail.
“I think that those people just haven’t thought creatively,” Tutchton says. “I could get that rancher to figure out how to make money off of that snail. They just need to come to that position on their own.”
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