WASHINGTON - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a petition Thursday to list an Arizona snail as endangered, saying the Rosemont talussnail was actually the same species as a much more common snail.
The decision was based on a 2012 study of the snails that compared them to a 1939 study that first suggested the Rosemont talussnail might be a unique species. The new study said the biologist in the earlier report mistakenly put the body and shell from two separate snail species together.
"The species was actually described in error," said Mike Martinez, the Fish and Wildlife Service species lead for the snail. The separate species "was just a figment of someone's imagination," he said.
From now on, the snail will be grouped with the more widespread Santa Rita talussnail, which is not endangered, Martinez said.
Conservationists who pushed for the endangered species listing said the 2012 report should be taken "with a grain of salt," since it was partly done by scientists hired by Rosemont Copper, which is trying to develop a mine in the Santa Rita Mountains.
"Quite often there is a tug-of-war in these taxonomic debates," said Randy Serraglio, a Southwest conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Taxonomy is a tricky business, especially when it comes to snails."
In a prepared statement, Rosemont Copper said the results of the talussnail study came from years of research, including field analysis, statistical analysis of shell shapes, dissection and comparisons to historical data and museum collections.
Martinez credited the company for funding the research, saying there was very little known about the snail previously.
Serraglio said "there are lots of people who care about the snail" and that it should be protected. But he said the center is more focused on the list of other endangered species that would be affected by a mine at Rosemont.
"You can remove the species from the list, and it doesn't change the dynamic that the mine would be devastating for the recovering species," Serraglio said.
"When you see endangered species impacted like this, it's just an environmental indicator of the environmental devastation that would result from this mine if it moves forward," he said. "The impacts affect hundreds of species, not just the endangered ones."
Martinez said the government could consider listing the larger group of Santa Rita talussnail as endangered - if somebody asks.
"We're always willing to accept information provided to us," he said.
But he noted that the agency is currently working through a years-long backlog of such petitions as part of a legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, and that the earliest it could start reviewing a new petition would likely be 2017.
Jeff Sorrensen, native fish and invertebrates program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said the decision on the talussnail formerly known as Rosemont did not surprise him.
"However, our talussnail species in Arizona are pretty unique and worthy of conservation," Sorrensen said. He said he would like to see the company dedicate funds to research the impact of the proposed mine on the area's snails and preserve as much of the occupied snail habitat as possible.
The snails in question live in rock crevices in the Santa Rita Mountains of southeast Arizona.
Kathy Arnold, Rosemont Copper's vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs, said planning for the project already included avoidance of many talus slopes.
"We don't anticipate that changing at this point in the process," she said. "Rosemont Copper's staff are working closely with those agencies whose role it is to identify and protect those species."
The U.S. Forest Service is currently considering the mine's proposed plan of operation. It does not need to consider the talussnails in its decision, but Martinez said the service can consider "general conservation efforts."