Toad whose habitat is at geothermal project site is emergency listed as endangered

Toad whose habitat is at geothermal project site is emergency listed as endangered
Dixie Valley Toad. (Center for Biological Diversity photo)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

A rare Nevada toad at the center of a lawsuit over a geothermal energy project will be granted an emergency listing under the Endangered Species Act, federal wildlife managers said Monday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Dixie Valley toad will be temporarily listed as endangered and be provided immediate federal protections for 240 days.

Protections for the toad will likely continue beyond the 240 days of the emergency listing after the proposed rule is finalized. 

The recently discovered species of toad is unique to Nevada, and is restricted to 760-acres of wetland habitat fed by hot springs in the remote Dixie Valley northwest of Fallon, Nevada.  

Primary threats to the Dixie Valley Toad include geothermal development, disease, predation by other non-native frog species, groundwater pumping for human and agricultural use and climate change, said USFWS.

A planned geothermal development project adjacent to the Dixie Meadows Hot Springs poses an immediate and significant risk to the well-being of the Dixie Valley Toad, the agency said, adding that an “emergency listing is necessary to prevent losses that may result in its extinction.”

The toad has been at the center of litigation challenging a geothermal power facility approved near the springs by developer Ormat Technologies. The proposed project would include two geothermal power plants, 18 or more geothermal wells, access roads, and 48 miles of transmission line on about 2,000 acres of public land in Dixie Valley.

In December, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in Churchill County and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over its approval of the project, which they say would damage sacred springs and endanger the rare desert toad.

The coalition successfully obtained a temporary pause on construction of the planned geothermal energy project, but the ruling was overruled by the 9th Circuit Court of appeals. Construction on the plant started soon after, while the lawsuit makes its way through the judicial process.

An emergency listing is extremely unusual, said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. The announcement marks the first time in 11 years USFWS has emergency listed a species, and only the second time in 20 years.

“It’s indicative of the acute threat of extinction faced by the Dixie Valley toad. As far as we are concerned, construction needs to grind to an immediate halt, while BLM consults with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether and how this project can proceed without putting the toad at risk of extinction,” Donnelly said. “And, the moment the emergency listing is officially published in the federal register, we plan to initiate a lawsuit to halt construction unless BLM does so voluntarily.”

Donnelly said it’s unclear how the federal emergency listing would affect the groups existing lawsuit against BLM, which is now in front of the 9th Circuit Court of appeals.

“Certainly the material circumstances of that case have changed significantly at this point. We are evaluating our options going forward,” Donnelly said.

Federal wildlife managers said they are seeking input from the public, tribes, scientists, industry, and other government agencies on the proposed rule to list the Dixie Valley toad under the normal rulemaking process. 

In recent years Nevada tribes have repeatedly fought to protect Dixie Valley from environmental degradation, including strong opposition to the Navy’s effort to expand the Fallon Naval Air Station’s bombing and training range. 

Dixie Valley is the ancestral homeland of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, which in 1887 was forced onto a reservation where most of its 1,500 members live today. The hot springs are considered a sacred site to the tribe, who refer to themselves as the Toi-Ticutta, or “Cattail eaters,” because the native edible plant was traditionally harvested for food from marshes such as those in Dixie Meadows. 

“Protecting small population species like this ensures the continued biodiversity necessary to maintain climate resilient landscapes in one of the driest states in the country,” wrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In a statement, vice president of business development for Ormat, Paul Thomsen, said the renewable energy company has “long recognized the importance of conserving the Dixie Valley Toad” and has developed a mitigation plan it believes “adequately protects the Dixie Valley toad regardless of its legal status.”

Ormat remains “fully committed to the sustainable development of renewable energy projects in the state of Nevada and around the world,” and the company will continue “thoughtful and transparent coordination” with federal and state agencies as it further develops their mitigation and monitoring plans, Thomsen said.

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