Dr. Rob Dillon, Coordinator

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Idaho Springsnail Showdown

Last Wednesday the US Fish & Wildlife Service (Boise Office) announced a 90-day comment period on a pair of competing petitions: one to remove Pyrgulopsis idahoensis (the "Idaho springsnail") from the federal endangered species list, the other to retain it and add several additional Pyrgulopsis populations from Wyoming and Oregon. The April 20, 2005 notice in the Federal Register is available as a PDF file from the link below. The purpose of this essay will be to briefly review the recent history of this simmering controversy from the standpoint of an interested outsider, with an eye toward patching a rift I fear may develop within the community more directly involved.

Pyrgulopsis idahoensis was one of five freshwater gastropods from the Snake River watershed added to the federal endangered species list in December, 1992. At that time, the species was believed to be restricted to an 35 mile stretch of the main Snake River below the C. J. Strike Reservoir. But as is too often the case, some fundamental background work on the biology of the animal had yet to be done. Early last year Hershler & Liu (2004a,b) reported that Pyrgulopsis populations conspecific with P. idahoensis inhabit three other regions: the upper Snake River drainage around Jackson Lake, Wyoming, springs scattered among Snake and Great Basin drainages in southeast Oregon, and the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border. The populations in the vicinity of Jackson Lake were previously identified as P. robusta while the SE Oregon populations were previously assigned to P. hendersoni. Since the nomen P. robusta (Walker 1908) has priority over idahoensis and hendersoni (both Pilsbry 1933), Hershler & Liu synonymized all these populations under P. robusta.

Last June the State of Idaho, together with the Idaho Power Company, petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service to remove P. idahoensis from the federal endangered species list. This was followed in August by a petition from several (non-governmental) conservation groups to list the Pyrgulopsis populations from all four of the regions mentioned above. Both petitions referred to the data of Hershler & Liu (2004a), while reaching different conclusions from it. Last week the FWS responded by announcing a status review and a solicitation to the public for comments and information on both petitions.

I would encourage any of our colleagues with data relevant to this issue to communicate with the US Fish and Wildlife Service before June 20. Visit the Snake River FWS link below for further details.

I have a concern of a secondary nature, however, which I think should be addressed within our professional community, rather than through the federal agencies and the various interest groups involved in the pending Idaho springsnail showdown. I perceive some danger that we may begin to fight among ourselves on this issue. I want to point out that we are all on the same team here, and to the extent possible we need to be careful not to antagonize each other.

Bob Hershler and Hsiu-Ping Liu are excellent scientists, and their 2004a paper in The Veliger meets the highest standards of systematic malacology. Any professional who has seen their research findings will respond by referring to all the Pyrgulopsis populations involved in this matter as P. robusta. I am not asserting that this is The Truth, only that the conclusions of Hershler & Liu must become the lead hypothesis, against which any other hypothesis may be tested. Instead, the petition filed by the conservation groups in August continued to refer to these populations as separate species: the Idaho springsnail (P. idahoensis), the Jackson Lake springsnail (P. robusta), the Harney Lake springsnail (P. hendersoni) and the Columbia springsnail (P. spp. A), which has never been recognized as specifically distinct by any professional malacologist. The petition criticized and picked at the work of Hershler & Liu, suggesting that they "overlooked key differences between the four species." Nonsense.

Worse, I understand that Bob Hershler's motives may have been impugned. He and Hsiu-Ping did receive part of their funding from a law firm whose clients include Idaho Power, but to suggest that this affected their scientific judgment is an insult.

There seems to be a confusion widespread among environmental advocates to the effect that "splitting is good, lumping is bad." Taxonomists who split out new species at the drop of a nucleotide are seen as allies in the good fight, while those of us who understand interpopulation variation are painted as soldiers in the service of darkness. The root of this problem is the mixture of science and politics, but I'll resist getting on my high horse about that, for now.

Returning to the western Pyrgulopsis, however, the scientifically responsible (and collegial!) approach for the Conservation Groups would have been to petition for the listing of P. robusta, period. Any confusion regarding the relationship between the nomena "P. robusta" and "P. idahoensis" could have been cleared up in a couple paragraphs of introduction. It's probably not possible, nor possibly even desirable, for these groups to modify their August petition to the FWS at this point. But somebody owes our colleague Bob Hershler and apology. And better communication among all members of the team in the future, OK?

Links & References

Hershler, R. & H-P. Liu (2004a) Taxonomic reappraisal of species assigned to the North American freshwater gastropod subgenus Natricola (Rissooidea: Hydrobidae). The Veliger 47: 66-81.

Hershler, R. & H-P. Liu (2000b) A molecular phylogeny of aquatic gastropods provides a new perspective on biogeographic history of the Snake River region. Molec. Phyl. Evol. 32: 927-937.

US Fish & Wildlife Service. Notice of two 90-day petition findings...Federal Register 70: 20512-20514. [PDF]

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Snake River Office:
(See "Service to review status of four springsnail species."