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Bitter Lake Proposed as Critical Habitat for Endangered Animals

March 12, 2009
WildEarth Guardians
In This Release
Climate + Energy   Koster’s springsnail, Noel’s amphipod, Pecos assiminea
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Bitter Lake Proposed as Critical Habitat for Endangered Animals

Fish & Wildlife Service Reconsiders Key Habitat Protections for Endangered Snails
Contact: WildEarth Guardians

SANTA FE, N.M.-The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today proposed that portions of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) be designated as critical habitat for 4 aquatic species, 3 of which are found nowhere else in the world. The proposal comes as a result of a lawsuit settlement with WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity. The groups were represented by Earthjustice. The Service must make a final decision on the proposal by July 30, 2010.

The Roswell springsnail, Koster’s springsnail, and Noel’s amphipod (a freshwater shrimp), are found nowhere else but the Bitter Lake Refuge, located northeast of Roswell, NM. The Pecos assiminea snail is found on the Refuge and in limited areas in Texas.

Today’s proposal reinstates a 2002 proposal by Service scientists for 1,523 acres of critical habitat for the Pecos assiminea snail and 1,127 acres for each of the other three species. In 2005, the Service slashed the final critical habitat area – providing only 397 acres for the Pecos assiminea and none for the other species, on the basis that the Refuge is sufficiently protected without a critical habitat designation. But the conservation groups contend that the Refuge needs critical habitat designation to protect it from oil and gas drilling, both in and outside the Refuge.

“The Service needs to right a past wrong here. The Bitter Lake Refuge must truly become a refuge for these rare and unique animals,” said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. “Just one oil spill in their habitat could extinguish these fragile species forever, and the Service should guard against that threat,” stated Rosmarino.

“We are pleased that the Service has once again proposed to designate the Refuge as critical habitat for these endangered species,” said Andrea Zaccardi, attorney for Earthjustice. “In order for these species to escape extinction, they need guaranteed protection of their sole habitat. We hope that this time around, the Service will finalize the critical habitat proposal to truly protect these rare and exceptional creatures.”

Oil and gas drilling in and near the Refuge threatens to contaminate the pure water that the four invertebrates depend on. In 1994, Yates Petroleum spilled brine in the Refuge, with a chloride content 20 times higher than state standards. Refuge staff called the spill a “tragedy” that imperiled springs, wetlands, underground waters, and wildlife.

The Service recognizes that these endangered invertebrates are sensitive to water contamination and that their narrow ranges make them vulnerable to extinction. Just “one contamination event … could result in the loss of an entire population, of which there are few,” the Service wrote when listing the species under the Endangered Species Act in August 2005. Given their sensitivity, the snails are “indicators” of water quality.

“These four New Mexico invertebrates are found nowhere else on earth and need critical habitat protection to survive,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Protect these species and you protect the springs they call home, ultimately benefiting dozens of species and an incredibly unique place.”

While the Refuge is managed for wildlife, its managers do not control underlying minerals, which have been leased out by the state, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and private parties. There are at least seven oil and gas wells in the Refuge, all posing contamination hazards.

In 2006, Yates Petroleum Co. filed applications for two more gas wells in the Refuge, one to be located just one-quarter mile from the visitors center and only 200-300 yards upstream of habitat occupied by the endangered invertebrates. After pressure from the state and others, Yates withdrew its applications. But the company could reapply.

In addition to dangers that oil and gas operations pose to the Refuge itself, the highly sensitive snails and shrimp face risks to their water quality from such operations in the area west of Bitter Lake Refuge, the source of its water. The BLM approved a plan in 2006 allowing up to 91 oil and gas wells to be drilled in this source water area. While including requirements to reduce the risk of contamination, it acknowledged that some hazard remained to the Refuge and the invertebrates. Drilling could occur at any time.

If finalized, critical habitat designation for these endangered invertebrates will provide more safeguards for the species from federal actions that authorize harmful activities, including the expansion of oil and gas drilling on public lands in southeastern New Mexico. The Endangered Species Act forbids adverse modification of critical habitat.

The snails and crustacean are so small they are barely visible to the naked eye. But they are indicators of the purity of the groundwater that they depend on and in which they have evolved over tens of thousands of years.

Bitter Lake Refuge contains many unique features, including sinkholes, playa lakes, seeps, and gypsum springs fed by an underground river, and it provides habitat to rare invertebrates and plants as well as a total of 485 wildlife species. Additional endangered species that live there include the Pecos sunflower, Pecos gambusia, Pecos bluntnose shiner, and least tern. The refuge hosts a Dragonfly Festival every year to promote awareness of the 90 species of dragonflies and damselflies that occur at Bitter Lake.

View the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal here.

Other Contact
The Roswell springsnail, Koster’s springsnail, and Noel’s amphipod (a freshwater shrimp), are found nowhere else but the Bitter Lake Refuge, located northeast of Roswell, NM. The Pecos assiminea snail is found on the Refuge and in limited areas in Texas.