After clambering down a canyon wall, ducking poison ivy vines and wading chest-deep across a lukewarm stream, Cary Myler spied some flecks that look like pepper sprinkled on a wet rock and announced, “Found some.”
The pinhead-sized dots are Bruneau hot springsnails. The tiny mollusks that thrive in water as warm as 100 degrees are found nowhere else in the world but here, in the bottom of this southwestern Idaho desert canyon riddled with hot springs 70 miles southeast of Boise.
A decade ago, the snails were at the center of a national battle over federal laws designed to protect endangered species. Today, years after the lawsuits were decided and most of the rhetoric retired, they are closer to extinction than ever before.
The level of the underground geothermal aquifer that feeds the seeps and springs of hot water where the snails live keeps dropping. Rock faces are now dry and bare of the films of the hot water that harbored thousands of the tiny algae-eating snails a few years ago.
Some blame the decline in the aquifer on drought. Others, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, suspect the primary cause is pumping of the hot water to irrigate surrounding farmland.
Congress appropriated $1 million six years ago for Bruneau Valley farmers to switch from flood irrigation to more efficient sprinkler pivots on their land. Meanwhile, crop land that had lain fallow for years under a federal conservation reserve program was put back into production.
More farm water, fewer hot springs
The amount of groundwater pumped from beneath the Bruneau Valley to irrigate the fields has increased to nearly 10,000 acre-feet annually, almost double what it was in 1995.
“We’ve put $1 million into pivots and we’re still seeing a decline in the aquifer,” said Myler, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who’s preparing a report on whether the snail should remain on the endangered species list. “More water is being pumped now than it was when the snail was listed and we’re finding fewer hot springs every year.”
First collected in this remote stretch along the Bruneau River in 1952, the Bruneau hot springsnail was originally proposed for inclusion on the list in 1985 after the Service documented a steady drop in the aquifer.
That triggered a legal battle over just how far the Endangered Species Act should go in preventing human activities that might jeopardize the survival of a creature the size of a poppy seed.
The local Farm Bureau, Owyhee County and the Owyhee Cattlemen’s Association sued in 1992 to stop the listing, fearing it would drive family farms to extinction. Idaho’s U.S. Senate delegation threatened to withhold funding for all endangered species if the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t back off on plans to list the microdot mollusk.
Former President Richard Nixon, who had signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973, wrote shortly before his death in 1994 that “measures designed to protect endangered species such as bears, wolves and bald eagles are now being used to force Idaho farmers off their land for the sake of the thumbnail-size Bruneau hot springsnail.”
Conservationists sued to force the listing, arguing politicians were manipulating the scientific conclusion the snail was in danger of extinction.
Despite Idaho’s objections, the snail was listed as endangered in 1993. Later that year, a federal judge in Idaho removed the snail from the list — the first time an endangered species had been delisted by a court order. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and restored the snail to the list, where it’s been since 1998.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has argued the Bruneau hot springsnail is a classic canary-in-the-mineshaft species.
“The snail is the messenger telling us that a water problem exists and must be dealt with or the ecosystem and agriculture upon which human beings depend will continue to crumble,” Mollie Beattie, the agency’s director at the time, told the National Press Club in 1993. “Once again, the local reaction is quite literally to kill the messenger rather than heed the message.”
Today, as the agency prepares a status report on the snail’s future, some veterans of the snail wars are bracing for the next round.
“Nobody is taking a swing at anybody yet, but we all wonder how low does that water have to go before the Fish and Wildlife Service must step in and take that first swing?” said Quey Johns, a Bruneau farmer who was president of the Farm Bureau when it sued the government over the listing. “The water hasn’t run out, and we are going to keep going until there isn’t any more. That’s just the way you farm.”