The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed that portions of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge be designated as critical habitat for four aquatic species, three of which are found nowhere else.
The proposal comes from the settlement of a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity. A final decision will be made by the FWS 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 action reinstates a 2002 proposal by FWS 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, as it does not control the fossil fuel reserves that lie underneath its surface.
"Because three of these species are found nowhere else in the world, protection of their sole habitat in the Bitter Lake Refuge is absolutely critical to their survival," said Andrea Zaccardi, attorney for Earthjustice. "We are hopeful that this time around, the government will act to protect these species and their habitat, as the law requires."
"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."
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.
"These anonymous spring-dwellers depend on pristine groundwater," said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This agreement will ensure that the life-giving waters these animals live in will remain pure -- and that's also imperative for people in our arid region."
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 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.
Andrea Zaccardi, Earthjustice, (303) 623-9466, ext. 623
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