One -- or two -- of California's most endearing reptile species may win protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday. So might a snail restricted to the western Mojave, a fish native to a single lake in California, a fly found only in the San Joaquin Valley and a forest tree that ranges throughout the Pacific Northwest. And a bird whose 1990 listing as Threatened might well have helped that tree may be moved to the Endangered list.
The laundry list style announcement by USFWS came in the form of a set of formal 90-day findings on petitions to list the western pond turtle, the Clear Lake hitch, the San Joaquin flower-loving fly (a.k.a. valley mydas fly), the Mojave shoulderband snail, and the Nootka cypress a.k.a. Alaska yellow-cedar, as well as to move the Northern spotted owl from the Threatened to Endangered species list.
USFWS now has a year to determine whether each of the above-mentioned California native species warrants listing or upgrading. The agency will also be considering listing the Egyptian tortoise, the golden conure, the long-tailed chinchilla, and the Nevada native fish the relict dace.
The western pond turtle, recently split into a northern and southern species, once ranged through freshwater habitats from Baja to Waqshington, but has lost as much as 99 percent of its habitat in some areas such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Development, pollution, and competition or predation by introduced species account for much of the pond turtles' decline.
"The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save western pond turtles, so I'm really happy that these amazing reptiles are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need," said biologist Collette Adkins, who works with the Center for Biological Diversity to protect reptiles and amphibians. "As California's only native freshwater turtles, western pond turtles are integral to the wild places where they live. Losing them would impoverish those places and our own connection with the natural world."
The Center for Biological Diversity also played a role in USFWS' decision to consider the Mojave shoulderband snail (Helminthoglypta greggi) for listing, after receiving a petition to list the snail from Center biologist Tierra Curry. The snail, which is restricted to relatively moist talus piles on the north faces of a few tiny mountain ranges in the western Mojave desert, faces the prospect that almost half its existing habitat will be destroyed by a gold mining company. (That petition was filed in January 2014, making this week's 90-day finding on the snail more like a 433-day finding. A delay like that isn't particularly unusual for USFWS.)
USFWS moved a bit faster in considering the Center's September 2014 petition to list the Clear Lake hitch; the group has also petitioned the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the fish on the state Endangered Species List. The hitch's numbers are dwindling due to loss of its freshwater streambed spawning habitat, as well as the lakeshore marshes that shelter juvenile hitch. The drought is only making that problem worse.
The San Joaquin flower-loving fly, Rhaphiomidas trochilus, is a close relative of the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, the only insect to be listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Like its relative, the San Joaquin flower-loving fly is restricted to dunes and other sandy soils; development has eliminated it from much of its already paltry original range, including the extensive dune complex at Antioch on the southern shores of Suisun Bay.
The Nootka cypress or Alaska yellow-cedar barely makes it into California, with just a few small stands of usually stunted trees in the vicinity of Happy Camp in the Klamath Mountains. The tree is much more common, and taller, in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, but perhaps not for long: a warming climate is killing large stands of the trees, and the U.S. Forest Service's preferential logging policy that treats the species as prime timer for harvest isn't helping.
A note on common names for readers who enjoy such things: the Nootka cypress or Alaska yellow-cedar is neither a true cypress nor a true cedar. Botanists have spent a lot of time in the last couple decades arguing over the Nootka cypress' proper taxonomical status; long placed in the false-cypress genus Chamaecyparis, recent genetic work has persuaded a plurality of conifer experts to put it in the formerly obsolete genus Callitropsis. That may change in the near future, and we'll be sure to bring you any exciting developments... if the tree's still around to classify.
As for the northern spotted owl, its listing as Threatened in the 1990s prompted a years-long conflict between logging and environmental protection in the Pacific Northwest known among environmentalists as the Timber Wars. Rampant overcutting and export of both raw logs and sawmill jobs likely did more to scale back the northwestern timber industry than did protecting the owl, which is still threatened by logging of its habitat. One of the ways logging affects the spotted owl may be by helping barred owls penetrate into what had been old-growth forest; barred owls are thought to outcompete -- and sometimes eat -- the smaller spotted owls.
A 1991 court ruling slowed logging in much of the northern spotted owl's habitat, but the owl has continued to decline in the quarter century since, prompting a 2012 petition by the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center to bump the owl from Threatened to Endangered.