The government has dragged its feet on deciding whether alligator snapping turtles and eight other species around the country need federal protection, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service missed decision deadlines, most of them by years, for species including the California spotted owl, a cat-sized hunting mammal called the Northern Rockies fisher, and an Alabama mussel called the Canoe Creek pigtoe, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit for endangered species.
Agency spokesman Tom MacKenzie said he was checking on whether Fish and Wildlife would comment on the suit filed in federal district court in Washington.
The hard-biting, spike-studded alligator snapping turtle is the largest of the species involved, growing more than 2 feet long and weighing up to 175 pounds. The smallest may be the Beaverpond marstonia, described as a tiny freshwater snail found only in one Georgia creek.
Tierra Curry, an attorney for the environmental nonprofit, said a snail scientist told her that he hadn't seen any of the snails on informal checks in the past few years. But one problem, she said, is that there hasn't been any money for thorough studies. The suit should prompt such surveys as part of a status review, she said.
"Then we'll know if it's extinct or has a chance," she said. "But the longer we wait the less chance we have."
As part of a settlement in another federal lawsuit, the environmental nonprofit agreed in 2011 to demand decisions for only 10 species each year. It sued for the monarch butterfly last week, so it has now hit that limit for 2016.
The wood turtle, which thumps the ground with its forefeet to scare earthworms to the surface, is another in this year's lawsuit. It once was common from eastern Canada to Minnesota and Virginia, according to the lawsuit, but is now rare and becoming more so.
The suit includes two small fish: a desert minnow called the Virgin River spinedace, once common in northwestern Arizona, southeastern Nevada and southwestern Utah, and the Barrens topminnow, found in Tennesse's Barrens Plateau. The topminnow is considered one of eastern North America's most endangered fish, with a population down from 4,500 to 5,000 in 1983 to "just a few hundred in 2004," according to the suit.
The only amphibian among the 10 is the foothill yellow-legged frog, once found from Oregon to possibly as far south as Baja California, Mexico. It's very vocal but rarely heard because it often makes its faint calls under water, according to the lawsuit. The bottoms of its legs are a bright lemon-lime color, but most of its skin ranges from olive green to brown — and it can slowly change the shade of its skin to better match its surroundings.