In a sudden inversion of concerns posed for decades by environmentalists, Mohave County officials believe protections for a rare species of snake could cause damage to the county’s economic habitat.
The Northern Mexican garter snake has been in sharp decline over the past two decades, according to a 2018 Northern Arizona University study, due to factors such as native and non-native predators, habitat loss and the loss of native fish and amphibian prey. The elusive snake species was listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014, and the agency has proposed adding 4,467 acres of critical habitat this year at Havasu National Wildlife Refuge, near Topock.
Changes proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the snake’s critical habitat include a reduction of protected land area surrounding the Bill Williams River. Added to that protected habitat, however, will be new areas along the Big Sandy River south of Wikieup and along the Santa Maria River east of Alamo Lake, comprising a total area of almost 4,050 acres.
“It appears that the potential economic harm done by the designation was not considered, particularly those in the Big Sandy Basin,” according to comments submitted by Mohave County Development Services Director Tim Walsh.
“Designations in the Bill Williams Basin, including the Bill Williams River, the Santa Maria River and the Big Sandy River should be delayed until an economic study focusing on the potential harm for small businesses and ranches is completed,” Walsh said.
According to Walsh, critical habitat for the snake – which could prohibit economic development options for the county without permission from the Fish and Wildlife Service – would shrink for counties throughout Arizona under the agency’s proposed changes, while ballooning in Mohave County.
“The increase in critical habitat should be directly aimed at protecting habitat where the snakes are currently, and not directed at offsetting reductions elsewhere.”
Northern Mexican garter snakes exist on riverbanks and in wet grassland areas, such as those found at Bill Williams River. They can grow as long as 44 inches, and are identified by a dark background color with light lateral stripes.
Public comment in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision will be received until June 29. The Mohave County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether to approve Walsh’s comments for submission at its June 1 meeting.