LUBBOCK, TEXAS – Federal officials are readying plans to evacuate a small number of endangered species in Texas as a severe drought lowers water levels and threatens the survival of rare wildlife.
Months with almost no rain have caused water levels to drop by half or more in many rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, including springs in the central Texas Hill Country that are the only remaining habitat for populations of small fish, amphibians and other creatures. If the water continues to drop sharply, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are preparing to net large samples from the springs to take to a hatchery for preservation.
Such evacuations have been rare in the past, with one ordered in 2000 to rescue several species of mussels in Georgia. But such emergency measures could become more frequent if the Texas drought continues for months or years, as many forecasters predict. The state is home to 86 endangered and threatened species.
“We’re definitely concerned,” Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Tom Brandt said. “I think we have moved to another step in making sure everything is ready. We’re in a planning stage right now.”
The evacuations would begin if water levels in two declining springs drop by more than another 50 percent, after similar reductions in recent months.
Only 9.6 inches of rain has fallen on average across Texas this year, a little more than half the normal amount. Fish are dying in lakes and rivers from lack of water and low oxygen levels. Growth of vegetation for animal habitat is down dramatically.
“Texas flora and fauna are adapted to the harsh, extreme conditions. However, this particular drought is testing the limits of native populations,” said Cindy Loeffler, a water resource expert with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The Comal and San Marcos springs, the largest in Texas, contain the only remaining populations of two small fish, the fountain darter and the San Marcos gambusia, as well as the Texas blind salamander; the San Marcos salamander; the Comal Springs Riffle beetle, the Comal Springs Dryopid beetle, the Peck’s cave amphipod, an invertebrate; and Texas wild rice.
In fact, the San Marcos gambusia hasn’t been seen since the early 1980s and could already be extinct.