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Unlikely Partnership May Save an Even More Unlikely Desert Snail

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The Mohave shoulderband | Photo: Lance Gilbertson

The small, desert-dwelling Mohave shoulderband snail, half an inch tall with a light brown spiral-shaped shell and pale pink body,  ekes out its existence under rocks and in crevices on a scant handful of Kern County mountainsides. The species could soon be granted protection by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). But an unusual partnership between two natural adversaries might make that less urgent.

Due to the peculiarities of snail breeding, most species have incredibly restricted ranges. Because they move about at a glacial pace and only emerge when it rains, snails – especially those that stick to rare pockets of moisture beneath rocks in the desert – don't reproduce all that often. That's especially true lately, given the multi-year drought we're all currently enduring. "They're reproductively isolated from their neighbors by geography very quickly, and that leads to speciation," says snail researcher Jann Vendetti of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

It's an effective way for evolution to produce remarkable diversity, but there's just one problem. This ancient mechanism for producing divergent snail species isn't prepared for humanity. Today, a significant portion of the Mojave shoulderband's range falls onto private property owned by the Golden Queen mine. The mine plans to operate open-pit gold mines over 1,440 acres on Soledad Mountain for more than three decades.

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Every Mohave shoulderband in the world can be found in an area smaller than just eight square miles between Mojave and Rosamond. According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the species has only ever been found in seventeen locations. Ten of those spots are on the mine's property, and eight of them, CBD says, "are very likely to be destroyed by mining activities." It's not just the physical destruction of the rocky patches they rely on for shelter that threatens the shoulderbands' well being, but also exposure to toxic pollutants used as part of the mining process, including arsenic.

This story starts as many such stories do, with the environmental interests on one side and the business interests on the other, the two opposing sides locked in an adversarial relationship.

And while the relations between the two sides haven't always been completely smooth, the story of the Mohave shoulderband just might end differently. The two sides are now working collaboratively to put a conservation plan in place for the snails. That's despite the fact that, right now, the mine is under no legal obligation to protect the species.

Indeed, more than two years ago, CBD submitted an emergency petition to USFWS to declare the Mohave shoulderband snail as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and to designate its critical habitat as well. USFWS agreed to make a determination by April 2016, but that hasn't happened yet.

"In the meantime, we started talking with the mine about possibilities to advance conservation for the snail while still recognizing that there was going to be a certain amount of mining that would go on in the general area," says CBD senior scientist Ileene Anderson.

The collaboration is still in early stages, but because of it, CBD agreed to allow USFWS another year before the agency makes its determination. Anderson hopes to get a conservation plan in place before then, "just so that everybody is agreeable for what needs to happen for the snail, regardless of what the listing decision is."

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Soledad Mountain, home to the Mohave shoulderband snail and the Golden Queen mine | Photo: Mojave Desert, some rights reserved

"I've never seen [a situation] quite like this, where a company has sat down on a cooperative basis with an environmental group pleading on behalf of a species," says Eric Washburn, an independent consultant hired by the mine to represent them in talks with CBD. "They had no idea the snail was out there," Washburn adds. But now that they do, he says that both parties are "committed to conserving the snail in perpetuity."

For example, Golden Queen has agreed to allow biological surveys on its property. "They have done their due diligence in avoiding some of the rocky outcrops that were part of the initial mining area, and adjusted some of those boundaries to avoid those outcrops until we get a better read on exactly where the snails are," says Anderson.

Despite their small stature, snails play an important role in their ecosystems. They gobble up decomposing vegetation, and provide food and calcium for a wide array of other animals. In doing so, they help cycle nutrients through the food web.

NHMLA's Vendetti, who has proposed to conduct research on this species, admits that the importance of snail conservation isn't necessarily intuitive. "With a snail that's halting the development of a gold mine, I get that a lot of people wouldn't understand that it's important." If the Mohave shoulderband was obliterated from the face of the Earth, she admits, most folks' day-to-day lives would remain unchanged. Indeed, the species doesn't necessarily have a tremendous impact by itself. But add up each individual species carelessly disregarded that way, and the cumulative impact of their extinction could be tremendous. "It's like littering. One cigarette butt isn't going to make a blight of your entire street, but if every person [littered] then it would be like living in a trash can," Vendetti says. Think of it as the broken windows theory of biodiversity conservation.

While both sides are optimistic, only time will tell whether they can arrive at a mutually satisfactory conservation plan that allows the long-term preservation of the Mohave shoulderband snail while also permitting the mine to meet its business goals. If they can reach agreement, it could be a model for future cooperative relationships between conservation advocates and economic interests.

"There's an opportunity here to do right by this snail. It's not typical for us to do these sorts of things, but we thought we'd take a chance… [And] it's worked," says Anderson. "So far."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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