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Endangered Texas Snake May Hold Up Texas Dam Construction

April 28, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A shy, nocturnal snake and a dam in arid West Texas are posing the first major congressional challenge to the Endangered Species Act since the classic 1970s battle between a tiny fish and the Tellico Dam.

In one corner is the Concho water snake, a 35-inch nonpoisonous serpent that the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list as a threatened species needing legal protection from humans.

In the other corner is the proposed Stacy Dam, a $66 million, locally financed water storage and delivery project that Texas interests say is vital to the future of towns such as Odessa, San Angelo and Abilene.

The service says that while the snake is found along a 200-mile stretch of the Colorado River, the dam and its reservoir would adversely affect about 74 percent of the Concho’s critical habitat.

But Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, saying concern for the snake is a ″serious case of misplaced priorities,″ has introduced legislation to exempt Stacy Dam from the law’s provisions giving creatures precedence over projects that threaten them with extinction.

There is a certain deja vu to the situation, which Fish and Wildlife Service officials say is the first time since 1979 that anyone on Capitol Hill has mounted a frontal attack to carve out an exemption for a project.

That effort came over the snail darter, an inch-long minnow that halted the $130 million Tellico Dam in Tennessee in its tracks and produced a Supreme Court decision upholding the tough environmental law.

The Tellico Dam, about 90 percent complete when the darter was discovered nearby in 1973, won an exemption from Congress in 1979. In the early 1980s, darter populations were found elsewhere, and the minnow’s status was downgraded from endangered to threatened.

Jim Johnson, chief of the endangered species section at the service’s New Mexico office, says the Concho exists in the second smallest geographic area of any U.S. snake.

He said that obtaining a population count on the gray and brown creature is difficult because ″the species is very secretive. It hides under rocks and comes out at night to feed.″

Johnson said he has no doubt that ″the majority of the critical habitat would be destroyed.″ But he said that whether the dam’s construction would threaten the snake with eventual extinction has not been decided.

John Fitzgerald, a lawyer for the Defenders of Wildlife, said his organization believes the dam spells doom for the Concho, which was discovered in 1944.

″If you flood the snake out, it can’t reproduce,″ he said. ″The young snakes need shallow running water and rocks. Clearly, there would be some snakes left, but the dam would jeopardize the existence of the species.″

Fitzgerald says there are alteratives to Stacy Dam, although they would raise the cost of the water project anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent.

Construction of the dam is not automatically blocked while the service decides whether to formally protect a species. But Johnson said the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to withhold the necessary permit until the service makes a decision sometime between now and next January.

Bentsen, whose legislation would require the corps to issue the permit by Nov. 30, said in a floor speech that the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t know for certain what damage the dam will cause the snake.

″Because of this speculation, the real or imagined threat to some unknown percentage of snakes in the water, the Stacy project is threatened, and more than a snake is jeopardized,″ he said.

″The only certainties are that water is a critical necessity to people in the area and that delays are penalties in the form of extra expenditures of local funds,″ Bentsen said.

″I don’t think there is any evidence that the snake would be made extinct or even any hard evidence that they don’t exist outside the large, 200-mile range,″ he said. ″I believe that reasonable efforts to mitigate the effects of the dam on the snake habitat should be undertaken.″

He said the service has been unwilling to discuss moving some of the Conchos elsewhere or modifying the reservoir to make it more like the Brazos Rivers reservoirs where a snake related to the Concho is ″able to live without difficulty.″

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