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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Threatened snake wins 447 miles of protected streams in Southwest

The fish-eating narrow-headed garter snake has seen its population dwindle due in part to degraded stream water quality caused by livestock grazing, agriculture and climate change-induced drought.

(CN) — The U.S. government on Wednesday set aside more than 400 miles of streams in Arizona and New Mexico as protected habitat for an endangered snake whose survival is threatened on multiple fronts.

The designation is expected to help restore the population of narrow-headed garter snakes in the Southwest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earmarked 447 miles of waterways, which amounts to more than 23,700 acres, as critical habitat for the imperiled reptile.

“Protecting these rivers will make a real difference for the narrow-headed garter snake,” said Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement Wednesday. “The only way to save these river-dwelling snakes is to shield the places they live.”

Considered one of the most aquatic garter snakes in the U.S., the narrow-headed garter lives around the Mongollon Rim in New Mexico and Arizona. A small-to-medium-sized snake with tan or grey-brown skin dotted with brown, black or reddish spots, its eyes sit high on an elongated head, providing its namesake characteristic. It prefers clear, rocky stream habitats and primarily feeds on native fish.

The critical habitat designation comes nearly six months after U.S. Fish and Wildlife set aside 217 stream miles, which totals more than 20,300 acres, as protected territory for the northern Mexican garter snake, another aquatic reptile that lives farther south and lower in elevation than the narrow-headed variety.

Both garter snake species were listed as threatened in 2014. Both have seen their survival threatened by encroachment and degradation of stream water quality caused by livestock grazing, mining, invasive species, agriculture, suburban sprawl and drought induced by climate change.

The habitat designations were far less than originally envisioned in proposals first considered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2013. Under one proposal, 1,380 stream miles would have been set aside as critical habitat for the narrow-headed garter snake. Less than a third of that was earmarked as protected territory on Wednesday.

Federal agencies must now consult with Fish and Wildlife whenever certain actions, such as approvals for mining projects or cattle grazing, might damage or destroy the snake’s habitat.

In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity sued Fish and Wildlife for failing to designate critical habitat for both the narrow-headed and northern Mexican garter snakes. The lawsuit was settled in 2019 when the service agreed to publish determinations on critical habitat designations by April 2020. Those deadlines were later extended to 2021.

In August, the center struck a separate settlement agreement with the U.S. Forest Service in which the agency agreed to stop letting cattle trespass on rivers and streams in the garter snakes’ ranges. The riparian areas were already designated as protected habitat for other imperiled species, but the center claims the Forest Service was “turning a blind eye to hundreds of cattle trampling vegetation and defecating in streams where they are banned.”

The center first submitted a petition to list the narrow-headed and the northern Mexican garter snakes under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. Multiple lawsuits were filed before decisions were made to list both snake species as threatened in 2014. At the time, the agency had proposed protecting more than 420,000 acres of critical habitat for the snakes, far more than the 44,000 acres designated for both species this year.

“Protecting rivers that disappearing animals rely on benefits snakes, fish, birds, amphibians and mammals, including people,” said Segee. “Protection should have come sooner for the narrow-headed garter snake. Now we have to focus on safeguarding and restoring our rivers to keep this snake swimming forever.”

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Categories / Environment, Government

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