The settlement requires the Service to propose the designation of critical habitat for the four endangered animals in the refuge and areas in Texas by March 11. The Service must make a final decision on the critical habitat proposal by July 30, 2010.
The Roswell springsnail, Koster's springsnail, and Noel's amphipod (a freshwater shrimp), are found only in Bitter Lake Refuge, located northeast of Roswell, New Mexico. The Pecos assiminea snail occurs in the refuge and two small areas in Texas.
In 2002, prompted by a lawsuit, the Service proposed to designate 1,523 acres of critical habitat for the Pecos assiminea snail and 1,127 acres for the other three species. But in finalizing the decision in 2005, it slashed Pecos assiminea habitat by 74 percent, to just 397 acres in Texas, and designated no critical habitat for the other three animals. The Service designated no habitat in the refuge, falsely describing it as fully protected.
"We look forward to the Bitter Lake Refuge truly becoming a refuge for these rare and unique animals," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. "These species could easily be pushed over the brink by oil and gas development occurring on public lands, so the Service needs to step up protections."
"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."
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," Service officials wrote when listing the species under the Endangered Species Act in August 2005. Given their sensitivity, the snails are "indicators" of water quality.
"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 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.
Critical habitat designation for these endangered invertebrates would provide additional 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.
Andrea Zaccardi, Earthjustice, (303) 623-9466, ext. 623