Tiny Arizona snail impacted by border activity proposed for federal protection

Sep 16, 2023, 6:30 AM

Quitobaquito Springs...

Quitobaquito Springs (National Park Service Photo)

(National Park Service Photo)

PHOENIX — Quitobaquito Springs is a remote natural water source in southern Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that is home to multiple species found nowhere else on the planet. 

One of those creatures is the Quitobaquito tryonia, a springsnail that compares in size to a chia seed or grain of sand, making it difficult to see. Its conical shell measures 0.05 to 0.08 inches and is usually clear, gray or black. The snails eat algae, bacteria, fungi, protists and dead organic material.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the springsnail as an endangered species on Tuesday due to a decline in spring flow caused by  groundwater pumping and drought, climate change impacts and “spring modification.”

FWS also proposed to designate critical habitat, approximately 6,095 square feet in Pima County.

Quitobaquito tryonia is known from three springs: Quitobaquito Springs, Williams Spring and Burro Spring. The species is now only found in the Quitobaquito Spring channel and a nearby hillside seep, FWS said.

Quitobaquito Springs is the largest of the spring systems in Organ Pipe National Monument in terms of both discharge and wetted area, presently exhibiting perennial spring flow but with declining discharge rates recorded over the past fifty years. Williams and Burro Springs once produced adequate spring discharge to host Quitobaquito tryonia, with populations documented in 1974, but both ceased flowing completely sometime before 2000. The species is now considered extirpated from these areas.

FWS’ proposed critical habitat includes two subunits: 4,455 square feet of the spring channel and 1,640 square feet of the hillside seep.

Listed features of designated critical habitat essential to the survival of the snails include free-flowing spring water with sufficient flow rate, periphyton to support all life stages of the Quitobaquito tryonia and emergent and submergent vegetation.

Border wall among threats to survival

Water volume has decreased due to long-term spring flow having diminished over the past 25 years, groundwater pumping and water diversion. The Sonoran Desert is the hottest in the U.S., and changes in precipitation patterns can have significant effects on the region, according to FWS.

The oasis is also but a stone’s throw from the southern border, about 200 yards, and the construction of the border wall has thrown a new obstacle in the springsnail’s survival, environmental groups say.

“These tiny, resilient springsnails don’t live anywhere else in the world, and they could be wiped out by groundwater pumping and future border-wall construction,” Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release. “To save them, we have to protect Quitobaquito Springs, a miraculous emerald jewel that’s really the entire universe for these miniature survivors.”

The federal government built about 450 miles of barriers along the U.S. Southwest border from 2017-21 which impacted cultural resources, water sources, endangered species and erosion, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last week.

FWS listed water withdrawal associated with wall construction to be a habitat stressor that would impact the future of these snails if construction continues.

“If this habitat dries up, that spells extinction for this vulnerable springsnail,” Jordahl said. “We hope the proposed protection of the Quitobaquito tryonia will spur urgent action to protect groundwater aquifers in this corner of the Southwest.”

The Center for Biological Diversity also warned that stadium lighting along the barrier would shoot artificial light pollution into Quitobaquito Springs, altering the dark habitat for the snails and other unique species like the Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtle.

Protection for the springsnails is perhaps a long-time coming.

Back in 2009, FWS published a 90-day finding on 192 Southwestern species from a petition to list them under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It evaluated that listing may be warranted for the Quitobaquito tryonia.

Quitobaquito Springs is also a historically and culturally significant place for the Hia-Ced O’odham and Tohono O’odham people. The spring has provided tribes resources for centuries.

FWS seeks public comment on the proposal to list the Quitobaquito tryonia as endangered within a 60 days.

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Tiny Arizona snail impacted by border activity proposed for federal protection