Springs support big life in nation’s driest state

Despite receiving less than 12 inches of precipitation pre year, the rugged and desolate high deserts of Nevada still manages to support nearly 4,000 different species of plants and animals. Survival for many animals in these inhospitable conditions is only possible because of the presence of small oases that dot the landscape – the many tiny springs that provide life-sustaining water. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Nevada boasts nearly 4,000 different species of plants and animals

By Dan Hottle
May 1, 2018

With less than a foot of precipitation each year, the high Nevada desert is one of the thirstiest locales in the nation for living creatures to survive. Yet somehow the Silver State boasts nearly 4,000 different species of plants and animals, nearly 200 of which can be found nowhere else in the world.

Incredibly, a large portion of those unique, endemic species live in the most improbable and hostile of places: tiny spring oases that dot the rugged Great Basin landscape. And their plight is every bit as difficult as it sounds.

“These are very small populations of potentially rare freshwater mollusks, fish and amphibians that were isolated in small springs in Nevada after the end of the ice age thousands of years ago that are still fighting for their survival today,” said Andy Starostka, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Reno office.

Water is a precious resource in the nation’s driest state. As a result, springs are often tapped, sectioned, impounded or diverted by humans, and can become trampled by animals. While there are more than 30,000 springs in Nevada, most range from the size of a large pond to no larger than a coffee table. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Starostka works primarily with federally protected spring-residing fish species – no bigger than a pinky finger – such as desert dace and Railroad Valley springfish, to try and understand both the ecological and anthropogenic, or human-caused, stressors that threaten their spring-fed habitats.

More than 30,000 springs exist in Nevada, ranging from the size of a large pond to no bigger than a coffee table. Some dry up and disappear year to year and some persist for millennia. Throughout the state’s arid climate, chronic drought can deplete springs in waning Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack years, and landowners working throughout the vast landscape also require these sources of water for their way of life.

"Even people who live here have a hard time looking out across the Great Basin’s dry, seemingly barren desert landscape and understanding that it’s actually teeming with incredibly biodiverse life," said Service biologist Andy Starostka. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Water is a precious resource in the nation’s driest state. As a result, springs are often tapped, sectioned, impounded and diverted by humans, and can become trampled by animals in their search to quench their thirst.

These activities can alter the amount, and quality, of water available in the spring habitats to the point that native species of fish, snails and frogs can no longer survive there.

The Service works with federal and state agencies as well as private landowners and corporations to restore and protect springs and associated wetlands so that these unique species can be conserved for future generations. Conservation partners work with the Service to find creative solutions that allow continued agricultural, mineral and even recreational uses of these lands.

“The process of identifying, agreeing upon, and implementing restoration projects, particularly when multiple landowners and agencies are involved, or new sources of funding are necessary, takes time,” said Carolyn Swed, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office field supervisor. “In many cases, a lack of knowledge about a species’ habitat needs can create uncertainties and potentially further delays regarding how or when to address threats. Therefore, conservation efforts like those associated with our springs are most successful when they’re undertaken well before a species becomes at-risk.”

A Dixie Valley toad waits to be measured near a spring in northcentral Nevada. "We know their distribution and how they breed, but we still don’t know their life history, where they overwinter or their overall population size. Those kinds of unknowns can make planning restoration projects difficult," said Service biologist Chad Mellison. Credit: Kris Urquhart/USFWS

Swed said the idea is to conserve species and their habitats on the ground in needed areas so that federal protections, through laws like the Endangered Species Act, can be avoided. “Several successful examples of this ‘pre-listing conservation’ work have occurred in the Silver State, such as efforts to protect the Bi-State and Greater sage-grouse, the Columbia spotted frog and Elongate mudmeadows springsnail,” she said.

A Railroad Valley springfish is measured in central Nevada. Credit: Andy Starostka/USFWS

“The task we have is to try and strike a balance in the livelihoods of all the species that struggle over the use of water from Nevada’s springs,” said Starostka. “I believe that together we can ensure that working ranches, mining operations and other economic development entities can continue to prosper while also protecting the health and biodiversity of our springs.”

Starostka and his colleagues also know that the challenges can be as diverse and ever-changing as the species themselves. 

Because little is known about the biology of some of these species, determining the right restoration action can be difficult.

“Nevada has about 80 different species of springsnails, and new species are still being described,” said Reno Fish and Wildlife Office biologist Laurie Averill-Murray. “Even though we’ve known about them for decades, for most species we still don’t know much about their microhabitat requirements, such as water quality and temperature needs, or what the ‘tipping point’ is for how much disturbance to their habitat they can endure.”

“Nevada has about 80 different species of springsnails, and new species are still being described,” said Reno Fish and Wildlife Office biologist Laurie Averill-Murray. Even though they’re smaller than a pencil eraser, springsnails are an important part of the food web. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Averill-Murray said that recent research shows that even small changes in spring habitats can affect the macroinvertebrate communities that thrive in them. Even though they’re smaller than a pencil eraser, springsnails are an important part of the food web, converting algae and other matter into nutrients for other animals.

And, because they require permanent, perennial water and are tied to the springhead environment where conditions are relatively stable, springsnails often serve as good “indicator species” for providing biologists clues about the overall health of these ecosystems.

Although she’s observed springsnails surviving in some “pretty degraded environments,” Averill-Murray said their inability to quickly move or migrate and their sensitivity to changes in water conditions make them especially vulnerable to habitat alteration. 

Because they are affected by changes in water volume, rates of flow, temperature and chemistry, efforts to move them from one spring system to another are unlikely to be successful.

“That means it’s far more preferable to conserve these species in the springs in which they’ve evolved and adapted,” she added.

Chad Mellison, a Reno Fish and Wildlife Office fish biologist, also studies how Nevada’s unique amphibian species such as the Dixie Valley toad use the state’s thermal springs.

"...we’re getting to a point where we can all agree that these springs are truly vital ecosystems, and that any level of protection we can provide them ultimately benefits all of the wildlife that relies on them," said Service biologist Chad Mellison. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

“Toads are nocturnal and go underground, so it’s also difficult to understand how they use springs,” he said. “We know their distribution and how they breed, but we still don’t know their life history, where they overwinter or their overall population size. Those kinds of unknowns can make planning restoration projects difficult.

"Genetic studies and continued monitoring of species’ population trends and responses to management actions are essential to understanding these species better, which better informs our restoration efforts,” Mellison said.

“For now, we’re getting to a point where we can all agree that these springs are truly vital ecosystems, and that any level of protection we can provide them ultimately benefits all of the wildlife that relies on them.”

“Even people who live here have a hard time looking out across the Great Basin’s dry, seemingly barren desert landscape and understanding that it’s actually teeming with incredibly biodiverse life,” said Starostka. “Tiny fish, snails and frogs may not strike everyone as particularly charismatic, but the springs that Nevadans rely on for their livelihoods are homes for these critters also, and they need all the help we can give them.”

A tiny, hardy springsnail sits on a leaf in a Nevada spring. Credit: Corey Kallstrom/USFWS

Threatened relict dace are collected to be measured and documented by biologists at Johnson Spring in northcentral Nevada. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Story Photo

Dan Hottle

About the writer...

Dan Hottle is a public affairs officer for the Reno, Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office and writes frequently about conservation issues in the Nevada's Great Basin.

Other stories by Dan:

"Monster" Lahontan cutthroat trout swimming one step closer to native spawning home

Bi-state sage grouse get new home on Earth Day

Nevada’s ‘Shoesole’ Ranchers Grazing Cattle For Sustainable Results, Not For Federal Regulations