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October 31, 2014

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Delays in protecting species spur lawsuits

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sued Thursday for allegedly dragging its feet on whether to put 93 species, including dozens in Nevada, on the Endangered Species list.

Four lawsuits, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, could have significant implications for developers, off-roaders and the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

The Endangered Species Act requires the Wildlife Service to make a series of findings on whether a species should be listed as threatened or endangered within two years of a petition being filed. The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit wildlife conservation group, contends the agency has failed to make one or more required finding in each of the 93 cases. In several cases, findings are years overdue, the center charges.

“We had hoped the Obama administration would move far more quickly to provide protection for endangered species than (President George W.) Bush did, but so far this has not been the case,” Director Noah Greenwald said in a statement. The delay has put the 93 species in jeopardy, he said.

Nearly half of those species are found in Nevada. The Mount Charleston Blue butterfly is perhaps the most desperate case.

The tiny butterfly lives in meadows at the highest reaches of Mount Charleston. It, along with a handful of other butterflies, is protected by the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

Environmental groups petitioned in October 2005 for the butterfly to be listed as an endangered species.

A Charleston Blue butterfly was last seen in 2007 and is thought by some experts to be extinct. The habitat is threatened by climate change and loss of meadowlands.

A listing could have implications for the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the area where the Mount Charleston Blue lives. It could also affect the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, which a few years ago commissioned habitat restoration studies to learn how to protect the butterfly in anticipation of the Charleston Blue being listed an endangered species.

The effort to protect 43 other animals — including dozens of rare snail and mollusk species and a minnow that depend on desert springs — could have a significant effect on the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to build a pipeline.

The authority has filed dozens of water-rights applications and purchased ranches with attached water rights in eastern Nevada and Utah, hoping to tap the aquifer for use by Las Vegas residents.

The authority’s plans to tap the water “threaten these species because all that ground water is connected,” said Rob Mrowka, an ecologist with the conservation group. “Anytime you tap into those basins, you’re going to impact the entire system.”

A Water Authority representative could not be reached for comment, but officials have said the authority would monitor water levels and shut off pumps as necessary.

The Center for Biological Diversity thinks the water basins would not react to such measures quickly enough to save the snails and fish. Further, it thinks that killing the snails in particular would trigger a chain reaction of die-offs in other species, because the springsnail helps regulate the chemical makeup of the springs and keep algae and decaying plant matter in check. Springsnails are also an important food source for fish and crustaceans that live in the springs.

“Those snails are like the canary in the mine,” Mrowka said.

All 42 springsnail species were petitioned for listing as endangered species in February 2009, but the Wildlife Service has significantly overshot its 90 day deadline for determining whether there is enough evidence that the species might need listing. That designation triggers a 12-month study period, by the end of which the agency would have to decide if listing is warranted.

The lawsuit could also affect development and off-roading in Amargosa Valley. At least two species there are up for listing as endangered species, and the center wants decisions on both as soon as possible.

Listing of the Amargosa toad was sought in February 2008. The toad lives only in a small area of Oasis Valley near Beatty. Local developers and off-roaders have agreed to steer clear of the remaining habitat areas, but not all riders have gotten the message.

The lawsuits also claim development — whether residential or solar power plants — would take water from the toads.

Off-roaders are also blamed for the dropping numbers of Mojave fringe-toed lizards. The speedy lizards live in several areas of the Mojave Desert, but the population in Amargosa River is particularly susceptible because of habitat destruction by dirt bikes and dune buggies, the lawsuits said.

The lizard lives on three dunes in and near Death Valley National Park, including Dumont Dunes, which gets tens of thousands of off-roaders each year.

A petition was filed in April 2006, but no decision has been made.

The problem may not lie just with the Wildlife Service, Mrowka conceded. The agency has operated with shrinking budgets since early in the Bush administration.

The service hasn’t had adequate staff in years. About 250 petitions sit in the agency’s office, many long overdue. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting by 5 percent the funding for the office that deals with endangered species petitions, Mrowka said.

“We’re pushing for changes in those priorities to address the species that are in the most imminent risk,” he said. “We didn’t want to file a lawsuit. We gave them plenty of warnings. But if the administrative processes we tried weren’t sufficient to get their attention, hopefully the lawsuits will be.”

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