Can the Endangered Species Act save the stonefly?

Western Glacier Stonefly
A Western Glacier Stonefly.

Glacier meltdown threatens unique ecosystems

Staff Report

Even with immediate and massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, most of the glaciers in the northern Rockies are likely to vanish in the next few decades. That means there won’t be any habitat left for the western glacier stonefly, which depends on cold glacial meltwater for habitat.

Even though their demise is all but certain, environmental activists say the insect needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, and last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to make that decision within the next year.Conservation groups had previously petitioned the agency to list the stonefly as endangered, and in 2011, the USFWS said that the rare bug may qualify for listing.

“The western glacier stonefly is rapidly losing its habitat to global warming and deserves protection as an endangered species,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This stonefly is a canary in the coalmine for global warming. Without efforts to curb our emissions, all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will disappear within as little as 15 years.”

The western glacier stonefly is known from only five small streams on the east side of the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park. The park’s glaciers are predicted to disappear as early as 2030 as a result of climate change — and as they go, so, too, will this unique invertebrate.

Since 1900 the mean annual temperature in Glacier National Park has increased by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit — nearly two times the global mean temperature increase. Of the estimated 150 glaciers in the park in 1850, only 25 remain, and they continue to shrink.

Stoneflies are excellent indicators of the health of their freshwater habitats. Extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, they are among the first organisms to disappear from degraded rivers and streams. They play a significant role in many aquatic ecosystems, decomposing leaves and other organic material and forming the base of the food chain.

Anglers have long recognized the important role stoneflies play in providing nutrients for fish. Despite their importance, these insects are one of the most imperiled groups of animals in North America: More than 40 percent of all stoneflies are vulnerable to extinction because they are especially sensitive to pollution.

Under today’s settlement the stonefly is one of 10 species from across the country that now have binding deadlines for the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue final protection decisions. The other species include the black-capped petrel from the Atlantic Coast, Mohave shoulderband snail from California, and seven southeastern U.S. species, including one mussel — the yellow lance — and six fish: candy darter, trispot darter, ashy darter, longhead darter, sickle darter and frecklebelly madtom.

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