US wildlife service considering endangered status for tiny snail near Nevada lithium mine

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Federal wildlife officials have agreed to conduct a full, year-long review to determine whether a tiny snail found only in high-desert springs near a huge lithium mine being built along the Nevada-Oregon line should be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in a finding published Thursday in the Federal Register that enough scientific exists to warrant the review sought by environmentalists who say that groundwater pumping required for the operation of the Thacker Pass mine could push the Kings River pyrg to the brink of extinction.

However, the agency said in the new finding it “does not anticipate the species is immediately at risk.”

The Western Watersheds Project argued in its formal petition for the listing in September 2022 that the tiny snail no bigger than the tip of a ball-point pen was imperiled even before any new mining was contemplated due to livestock grazing, round-building and the anticipated impacts of climate change.

Ramped-up domestic production of lithium is a key part of President Joe Biden’s blueprint for a greener future less dependent on fossil fuels. Worldwide demand for the critical element in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries is projected to increase six-fold by 2030 compared with 2020.

Last October, the Idaho-based group sent the Interior Department agency a formal notice of its intent to sue unless it expedited the review under the Endangered Species Act.

“Without ESA protection, this unique springsnail will become another casualty of the lithium boom,” Paul Ruprecht, the Nevada state director of the Western Waterhseds Project, said in a statement Thursday.

The wildlife service said its new finding is based on substantial scientific or commercial information, including the potential impact of the mine operation — with an open pit deeper than the length of a football field — on the springs where the snail lives about 200 miles (321 kilometers) northeast of Reno.

It also confirmed the snail is currently known to exist in only 13 isolated springs within a 14-mile (22-km) radius of Thacker Pass and the Montana Mountains in Humboldt County.

“The petition presents credible information that all 13 known springs occupied by the Kings River pyrg exhibited signs of habitat disturbance during 2018 surveys and that the flows of 4 occupied springs have already been modified,” the agency said. It said other threats include “livestock grazing, roads, drought, climate change and the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.”

Lithium Americas, which is developing the mine, said it’s done significant research and plans extensive monitoring to guard against any potential harm.

“There is no indication the springsnail would be impacted by the Thacker Pass Project based on more than 10 years of data collection, impact evaluation by federal regulatory agencies, and judicial review,” said Tim Crowley, the company’s vice president of government and external affairs.

“We support this additional study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are confident it will reaffirm that we’re building an environmentally responsible project with no impacts to the snail,” he said in an email to The Associated Press.

Environmentalists and Native American tribes spent two years in federal court unsuccessfully fighting the project they say would also destroy priority habitat for imperiled sage grouse, key migration corridors for pronghorn antelope and nesting habitat for golden eagles.

Paiute and Shoshone tribes also say the mine is being built on sacred land at Thacker Pass where more than two dozen of their ancestors were massacred by U.S. troops in 1865. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last July that the Bureau of Land Management violated no laws when it approved the project in 2021.

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