The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has temporarily granted the Dixie Valley toad emergency protection under the Endangered Species Act, citing the construction of a geothermal power plant next to the toad’s habitat as a “significant risk to the well-being” of the species.
The toad will be listed as endangered for 240 days, but the federal agency is also proposing to extend the protection longer, according to a statement.
Dixie Valley toads live solely in a 760-acre wetland complex fed by hot springs north of Fallon, Nevada, per the USFWS. Scientists only discovered that these toads are their own species after genetic analyses in 2017. Other threats they face include predation, disease, groundwater pumping and climate change, per the USFWS.
“This decision comes just in the nick of time for the Dixie Valley toads, which are staring down the barrel of extinction,” Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, says in a statement. “We’ve been saying for five years that the Dixie Meadows geothermal project could wipe out these tiny toads, and I’m thankful those concerns have been heard.”
The Bureau of Land Management approved the construction of the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Development Project, which includes two power plants, last November. The agency stated that the project would help the state reach renewable energy goals.
A month later, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe sued the bureau to halt the project, stating the plants would dry up sacred hot springs and drive the Dixie Valley toad to extinction, per the New York Times’ Christine Chung.
"The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words,” Cathy Tuni, Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribal chairwoman, said in a statement last year.
“Our Creator made the springs with the toad, as a connected whole,” she tells the Times.
Ormat Technologies Inc. broke ground on the plant last month, writes Scott Sonner for the Associated Press. But the company tells the AP that the toad’s listing will not affect construction because the company has spent six years creating a plan to offset potential environmental impacts.
“Ormat long recognized the importance of conserving the Dixie Valley toad, regardless of its legal status,” writes Ormat Vice President Paul Thomsen to the AP in an email. “Ormat will coordinate with relevant agencies to ensure that any additional required process is met while we continue our work on this important renewable energy project.”
In the past 19 years, the USFWS has granted only one other species emergency protection—the Miami blue butterfly in 2011, per the AP. The butterfly faced severe declines in its population because of a variety of threats, including pesticides, hurricanes, climate change, habitat destruction and competition from invasive species, per the Houston Chronicle’s Curtis Morgan.
The USFWS will be taking comments from the public about extending the toad’s protection beyond 240 days until June 6, 2022.