War of Words Mounts in Race to Protect Desert Snail

The Mohave shoulderband | Photo: Lance Gilbertson

A small snail found only in a few small hills in the Mojave Desert has launched a public dispute, as mining interests and wildlife advocates spar over whether the species should be granted federal protection.

The Mohave shoulderband (Helminthoglypta greggi), which is restricted to north-facing talus piles and crevices on three hills in eastern Kern County near Mojave, is about to see most of its habitat excavated for gold mining. That prompted the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the snail under the Endangered Species Act in January.

That petition launched a 90-day deadline for USFWS to decide whether or not to propose listing the shoulderband as Endangered or Threatened. That deadline comes up on May 1. In the meantime, the mine owners are opposing protection for the species, and they'e doing so by questioning whether it even exists.

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To be clear, representatives of the Golden Queen Mining Company aren't denying that the Mohave shoulderband snails themselves exist on the hillsides the company intends to mine for gold. But the company is saying the species may not exist in a taxonomic sense. They're challenging CBD's petition on the grounds that the species was first described in 1931, which they claim calls the validity of the species into question due to obsolescence.

Were a more recent biologist to reexamine the Mohave shoulderband snails, the company implies, she might find that the snails actually belong to a more widespread and non-threatened species. The company argues that listing the Mohave shoulderband would thus be improper.

(Of course, if we're handwaving with no actual data, that same hypothetical 21st century biologist could just as easily find that Helminthoglypta greggi needs to be split up into new species, with one of those new species entirely restricted to the Golden Queen Mining Company's property.)

In a reply to USFWS dated April 15, CBD biologist Tierra Curry ably takes apart Golden Queen's claim of taxonomical invalidity:

The company criticizes our petition for referring to a paper that was published in 1931 describing the species. They criticize this reference because it is 83-years old. The reality is that most species were first described long ago. California's redwood trees, for example, were described as a species in 1823. The jaguar was first described in 1758, the bald eagle in 1766, and the gray whale in 1861. That the Mohave shoulderband was first described in 1931 in no way negates its existence.

That's not to say that there's no chance the snails on the Golden Queen Mine property couldn't use some taxonomical updating. A quick search of Google Scholar's database indicates that no work on the species has been published in the last 30 years. Were a graduate student to adopt the Mohave shoulderband as a project, she might find that the species needs revision. Biologists are always finding taxonomies to adjust, pretty much wherever they look at long-neglected species.

But that's irrelevant to the issue of listing the Mohave shoulderband. In making its decisions whether to list a species, USFWS is legally constrained to use the best available science. And in the case of the Mohave shoulderband, that best available science is the consensus among malacologists -- mollusk scientists -- that Mohave shoulderbands belong to Helminthoglypta greggi, which is restricted (so far as anyone knows) to those three hills in Kern County, one of which is about to have a gold mine dug into it.

In short, Golden Queen's argument by taxonomy is a bit of a reach, and we may well see how USFWS addresses it sometime next month.

In the meantime, CBD continues to push for an emergency listing for the snail. "We have already publicly stated that our goal in this situation is not to stop this mine, but to save a species from extinction," writes Curry in her letter. "Golden Queen mining company could avoid driving this irreplaceable mollusk to extinction if they were willing to make modifications to protect the on-site snail habitat."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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