A nationwide species preservation group reached a landmark agreement Tuesday with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that will spur the agency to make decisions on adding more than 750 plants and animals to the list of federally protected species, including 54 in Nevada.
"What this means is hundreds of species will finally get a decision on protection," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity's office in Portland, Ore. In some cases, a decision has been awaited for decades, he said.
Of the 54 Nevada species, Greenwald said the Fish and Wildlife Service is obligated to make decisions in the next few years. That includes calls on whether or not to list the Mount Charleston blue butterfly, the relict leopard frog, the Mono Basin sage grouse and the Western yellow-billed cuckoo.
Decisions to grant federal protection as threatened or endangered species could impact development or land use in habitats where the species are found, requiring costly mitigation measures.
The inch-long Mount Charleston blue butterfly, for example, is believed by some biologists to be on the brink of extinction.
"It clings tenuously to existence in the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas and remains threatened by habitat loss, fire suppression and drought," according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
A news release from the center says the relict leopard frog, once found in Utah, Nevada and Arizona, disappeared in the 1950s and was thought to be extinct until some small populations were rediscovered in Nevada in the 1990s. Those populations are being monitored by biologists in and around Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Lower Colorado River system.
"It lives in undisturbed, permanent springs and is threatened by water development, recreation, disease and invasive species," the center's news release states.
In addition, Greenwald said 42 Great Basin spring snails fall under the agreement, including many that he said are threatened by the Southern Nevada Water Authority's plans to pump groundwater to Las Vegas from remote locations in eastern Nevada.
A decision on listing the spring snails is expected this year.
Southern Nevada Water Authority spokesman J.C. Davis said the authority "is firmly committed to environmental protections and will continue to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service."
The service is in the process of determining from studies what actions, if any, are necessary to protect spring snails in the Snake Valley basin in White Pine County, 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to set legally binding deadlines on deciding whether or not to list species for protection in exchange for the center dropping lawsuits on the spring snails and some 90 petitioned species and dropping a global lawsuit over the service's lack of progress on species listing decisions.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, D.C., accepted the agreement for approval pending the outcome of a petition to intervene by another group.
"The agreement has been reached. We're waiting for imminent approval by the court," Greenwald said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern Nevada, Dan Balduini, said in an email that the agreement "allows us to focus our resources on the species most in need of protection. It provides a clear path forward."
Under the agreement, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to make decisions on 757 species across the country with a decision on the last one, the Pacific walrus, finalized in 2017.
"Most decisions will be in the next two years or so," Greenwald said in a telephone interview.
In the center's news release, Greenwald said, "Nevada's endangered species are a bellwether telling us there's too much urban sprawl, pollution and habitat destruction. If we can't save them, we won't be able to save ourselves. We're in this together."
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.