By ASSOCIATED PRESS
After clambering down a canyon wall, ducking poison ivy vines along a switchback trail and wading chest-deep across a lukewarm stream, Cary Myler squats down near a riverbank, spies some flecks that look like pepper sprinkled on a wet rock and announces, "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.
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.
That's because the level of the underground geothermal aquifer that feeds the seeps and springs of hot water where the snails live keeps dropping.
Some blame the decline in the aquifer on drought. Others, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, suspect groundwater pumping of the hot water to irrigate surrounding farmland is the primary cause.
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, cropland that had lain fallow for years under a federal conservation reserve program was put back into production.
And 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 now preparing a five-year status report on whether the snail deserves to remain on the federal government's list of endangered species. "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 federal list of endangered species in 1985 after the service documented a steady drop in the aquifer.
That triggered a pitched 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 snail became a cause celebre of the Sagebrush Rebel set, a symbol of government regulation run amok.
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.
Even former President Richard Nixon, who had signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973, wrote in a book shortly before his 1994 death 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 politics were manipulating the scientific conclusion the snail was in danger of extinction.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, over the objections of the state of Idaho, listed the snail as endangered in 1993. Later that year, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that the agency had abused its discretion and removed the snail from the list—the first time an endangered species had been delisted by a court order rather than scientific evidence of recovery. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and restored the snail to the list, where it's been since 1998.
The service has argued the Bruneau hot springsnail is a classic canary-in-the-mineshaft species.
Today, as the service prepares a status report on the snail's future in the face of a continually declining aquifer, some of the 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."