A Big Gold Mine Could Wipe Out a Tiny Endangered Critter

The government approved the project before a schoolteacher discovered the Mohave shoulderband snail on the mining site.
(Photo: Center for Biological Diversity)
Apr 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

When you look at California’s Soledad Mountain from space, all you see is a patchwork quilt of mining roads and gaping holes, the result of more than 120 years of mineral extraction in the Mojave Desert.

“The area’s been pretty badly disturbed,” said H. Lutz Klingmann, chief executive of the Golden Queen Mining Company in British Columbia, which is developing a massive new open-pit gold and silver mine there.

What you can’t see from space—or even on the ground, most of the time—is a tiny, critically endangered mollusk called the Mohave shoulderband snail. A science teacher discovered the snail at the mine after federal wildlife officials green-lit the project. Now the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity contends the mine will wipe out 10 of the snail’s 17 known locations, putting the species at risk of extinction.

“We’re not trying to stop the mine,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with CBD. “We just want them to set aside some habitat to save the snail.”

The CBD has twice petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the snail under the Endangered Species Act. Last week, the FWS agreed that such protection may be warranted.

“We think it’s an emergency situation,” said Curry. “A lot of the snail sites are going to be wiped out during the first phase of mining activity.”

The Soledad mine is on public land leased from the Bureau of Land Management. If the snail is protected under the Endangered Species Act, the BLM would need to work with the FWS to figure out how to protect the snail’s habitat before mining could proceed.

Although the snail was first discovered more than 80 years ago, no one knew it existed on Soledad Mountain until a few years ago, when a science teacher and amateur malacologist (mollusk researcher) named Dave Goodward started studying the region’s snail species. He located the half-inch-long Mohave shoulderband snail in a number of tiny microhabitats with shaded rocks and moist soil. Mining activity could eliminate those small patches of hospitable land.

Goodward wasn’t aware of the mining project at the time of his field trips. “Then he started looking at Google Maps in the area, and he realized that the mining project threatened the majority of this snail’s range,” Curry said. “He contacted us to see if we could help. We looked into it and realized, wow, this mine is going to wipe out most of this species’ habitat.”

They weren’t the only ones surprised by the discovery. Federal and state regulations require the company to identify protected species that the mine project could affect, but Klingmann said “the snail never arose.” He denied that the mine would have a large impact on the species. “Does it exist in our particular neighborhood? There are no assurances to that effect.”

Under the law, the FWS now has 12 months to decide if the snail deserves protection. Curry said she hopes that’s enough time. “I think that emergency protection should be instated today, and they should figure out exactly where the snails are and how to save them and take some into captivity as a backup plan,” she added.

Until that happens, the mine is moving forward as planned.