Economic Impacts of the Conservation of the Mojave Shoulderband Snail (Helminthoglypta 'Coyote' Greggi)

By Cyrene Krey
2015, Vol. 7 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |


The terrestrial Mojave Shoulderband Snail (Helminthoglypta (Coyote) greggi) is being considered for status and protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act due to the recent construction of a mining operation in an area that occupies a significant portion of its habitat range. There are many points that require consideration when evaluating the sustainability and economics of the mining project compared with the survivability of this species. Of particular importance to this discussion are the economic implications of the mining project, the functioning of the Mojave Shoulderband Snail in the environment, and the purpose and structure of the Endangered Species Act.

The Mojave Shoulderband Snail (Helminthoglypta (Coyote) greggi) is being considered for status and protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act due to the recent construction of the Soledad Mountain gold mine in an area that occupies a significant portion of its habitat range. The mine threatens to destroy the majority of this species’ natural habitat, and it will also pollute the nearby remaining habitat with toxins such as arsenic. This has created significant conflict over the state of both the Mojave Shoulderband Snail and the recently constructed mine. The mine is expected to provide a significant monetary value to the local community through its continued operation.

In addition, the Golden Queen Mining Company has already contributed over several million dollars towards developing the mine. Further complicating the issue is the obscurity of mollusks with comparatively little being known about their ecology. Therefore, the costs associated with an appropriate level of study to obtain enough information to develop truly effective management plans is not well known but may be significant. However, many studies suggest that snails play a vital role in the ecosystems they inhabit, and the costs associated with extinction may be equally significant.

Mojave Shoulderband Snail

There are several issues at stake in the evaluation of the sustainability and economics of the mining project compared with the survivability of this species. Field (2008, p. 22) notes that a variety of issues concern natural resource use, such as extractive or non-extractive forms of resource use, determining the optimal rates of use, and the study of relevant policies.

Economic efficiency results when societal benefits are maximized, but it can be difficult to evaluate when competing interests are considered (Field, 2008, p. 81). Multiple interests are represented in the case of the conservation of the Mojave Shoulderband Snail including the Golden Queen Mining Corporation, citizens of Kern County, conservationists, and the snail itself. As environmental costs are considered external costs, determining sustainability in this situation is challenging but necessary (Field, 2008, p. 92).

The Mojave Shoulderband Snail (Helminthoglypta (Coyote) greggi) is a terrestrial snail with a brown spiraling shell, approximately 0.5 inches tall (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). It is at risk because of the construction of gold and silver mines on its habitat, particularly the Golden Queen Mine on Soledad Mountain which contains approximately 86% of the snail’s remaining habitat (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). In addition to the threat of habitat destruction from the mining activities, the risk of arsenic contamination is also a concern to the snail’s survival (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5).

For these reasons, the Center for Biological Diversity is proposing protection under the Endangered Species Act, which is the relevant legislation pertaining to this case. As an unrecognized species under the act, there are no regulations in place to ensure the Mojave Shoulderband Snail’s protection (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). Environmental public policies, such as the Endangered Species Act, exist to promote natural resource use that is efficient, equitable, enforceable, and flexible (Field, 2008, p. 107). These policies serve to complement and enhance economic efficiency and sustainability.

There are two categorizations that exist within the structure of the Endangered Species Act: endangered species and threatened species. Endangered species are those which are at serious risk of extinction if no action is taken to avert it and are provided the complete protection of the Endangered Species Act (Cardoni, 2010). Threatened species are those which may become at risk for extinction, endangered, in the immediate future but are not currently facing extinction (Cardoni, 2010).

While most threatened species have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, some are provided with only restricted protections (Cardoni, 2010). Regulatory protections of at risk species can limit the harm to ecosystems through species loss or decline. Modifications to ecosystems weaken functions and result in a rise in the likelihood of diseases which may upset all species within an ecosystem; factors that contribute to this include an increase in human populations, unsustainable resource consumption, loss of biodiversity, and habitat fragmentation and encroachment (Wyler & Sheikh, 2008).

Mining Project

The size of the mining operation will encompass 1,440 acres in the southeastern portion of Kern County, immediately outside of the city of Mojave (Kern County Planning Department, 2013, p. 1). The land surrounding the project site is primarily residential and vacant land with a movie set located to the south of the site (Kern County Planning Department, 2013, p.1). Conventional open pit mining operations will be utilized along with the cyanide heap leach and Merrill-Crowe processes (Golden Queen Mining Corporation [GQM], 2014). Gold and silver will be recovered from agglomerated, crushed ore (GQM, 2014).

Open pit mine

The Soledad project is located in the Mojave Mining District, a district that encompasses an area within five miles of the site, where the former Cactus Gold Mine, Standard Hill Mine, and Tropico Mine were located (GQM, 2014).

Mining in this district has been taking place since 1894 when gold was first discovered (GQM, 2014). The earliest mining efforts halted in 1914 due to limited technology to extract the minerals and did not resume until 1935 (GQM, 2014). Mining was again halted in 1942 by the War Production Board, and the mines did not immediately reopen after the war (GQM, 2014).

In 2010, a conditional use permit was approved alongside the modification of two existing conditional use permits for the project which involved amending a surface mining and reclamation plan in accordance with the Surface Mining Reclamation Act (SMARA) of 1975 (Kern County Planning Department, 2013, p. 1). Since that initial permit, two additional extensions in 2011 and 2013 were requested by Golden Queen Mining Corporation and had been approved but were set to expire in April of 2015 (Kern County Planning Department, 2013, p. 2). No new information has yet been published to the Kern County website regarding the updated status of the conditional permits.

The permits specified the many environmental conditions associated with the Environmental Impact Assessment that would require particular mitigating actions on the part of the company. The corporation undergoes site inspections on a yearly basis to determine compliance with conditional use permits and is expected to be responsible for ensuring that mine sampling is permitted to test for mercury and cyanide on site (Kern County Planning Department, 2013, p. 21; GQM, 2014). The Kern County Planning Department (2013, p. 21) has also established the expectation for worker education programs to include information regarding wildlife habitat awareness. The corporation has done so in the form of a brief slide presentation on several of the at risk species in the area; information regarding the Mojave Shoulderband Snail was excluded from the presentation (GQM, 2014).

While gold and silver production at Soledad Mountain will fluctuate, the projected per year average is estimated at approximately 74k oz for gold and 781k oz for silver during full production (GQM, 2014). As nonrenewable mineral resources, the limited availability of gold and silver and the ability to extract those resources will determine the life of the project (Field, 2008, p. 31). Over a period of approximately 11 years, the anticipated life of the mine, projected production of gold is at 807,000 oz and silver is at 8.3MM oz with a base case price for gold at $1,250/oz and silver at $17/oz (GQM, 2014). The after tax internal rate of return is expected to be 28.3% and the after tax net present value is $214MM (GQM, 2014). GQM (2014) reports strong economics for the project while including only 65% of the resource in their feasibility study.

The operation plans on using a high-pressure grinding roll (HPGR) for sizing and preparation of ore particles for heap leaching (GQM, 2014). There are several economically beneficial results from HPGR use. It is expected to result in higher gold and silver recoveries, faster extraction rates, stronger agglomerates, reduced capital costs, reduced operating costs associated with mitigation of dust, reduced energy consumption, and an increase in the ability to upgrade the equipment (GQM, 2014).

The ore types that will be mined include 70% rhyolite porphyry and flow-banded rhyolite, 20% quartz latite porphyry, and 10% pyroclastics as well as 0.1% siliceous vein material (GQM, 2014). A variety of rock types will be found on site, with extrusive volcanic origin rock as the primary type, high in silica and with minimal or no amount of clay (GQM, 2014).

Mineral extraction is not the only economic consideration of the mining project. Job creation is another potential benefit to the community. Major business activities within and surrounding Kern County include agriculture, mining, oil and gas extraction, construction, and manufacturing (Oviatt, 2015, p. 84). Agriculture, mining, and extraction account for 35% of all jobs, with 16,843 of the overall 91,237 workers in Kern County occupying positions in these industries (Oviatt, 2015, p. 84). Golden Queen Mining Corporation is not listed as one of the major employers in Kern County (Oviatt, 2015, p. 84).

Species Ecology

Part of any protective measures will require understanding the life cycle of this species. Mollusks are an understudied group of animals with relatively little assessment of their conservation status (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 6). This is indicated by the low number of threatened or endangered snail species in the United States. Only 11 species of land snails are listed species, although it is suspected many more may qualify if additional financial resources were devoted to research efforts (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 6).

Because of their sensitivity to anthropogenic environmental modifications, mollusks are an effective indicator species of environmental health as well as an especially imperiled group, making up the taxonomic group with the greatest amount of extinctions (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 6). Since the 1500’s, 42% of recorded extinctions have been mollusks, amounting to 291 species total compared to the 231 tetrapod species (Lydeard et al., 2004, p. 322). An additional 55% of 2,306 assessed mollusk species were indicated to be threatened or near threatened (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 6).

Because of the structure of the Endangered Species Act, recovery plans do not include economic costs or benefits in order to avoid favoring a particular species for protection and neglecting another because of economics (Brown & Shogren, 1998, p. 4). Unfortunately, this means that determining the full costs associated with promoting the conservation of a particular species is difficult. This difficulty is enhanced when discussing species such as the Mojave Shoulderband Snail that are already suffering from a lack of information.

The Mojave Shoulderband Snail is found exclusively in Kern County, occupying three hills in the region which encompass less than eight square miles (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). This area is prone to mining operations and all of the hills this species occupies have been mined at some point for gold and silver (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). The extremely limited habitat of this species makes it especially vulnerable and unique. Because of previous mining operations in the area, toxic remnants are already posing a threat to the well-being of the snail and continuing climate change is also likely to remain a contributing factor to the species’ decline (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5).

Other species exist on or near the site that are state-listed as threatened. The Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) is known to be located near the mining area and is suspected to be on site as well (GQM, 2014). The Townsend’s Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), a species that is extremely prone to disturbances, is also believed to inhabit the mining area (GQM, 2014). Prairie Falcons (Falco mexicanus) have been recorded on site in the past and are believed to still have a presence in the area (GQM, 2014). The Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) has been directly observed on site (GQM, 2014). The LeConte’s Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei) is believed to have a high potential to reside at the mining project location (GQM, 2014). Other less threatened species also live in or near the mining site. Disturbance or extinction of the Mojave Shoulderband Snail has the potential to impact the entire ecosystem which may have effects on listed species as well as other at risk species. In addition, the loss of one species may potentially impact others, leading to their decline.

The roles of snails in ecosystems are numerous. Snails are a vital part of the decomposition of vegetative litter as well as important nutrient recyclers which aid in the maintenance of soil health (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). Decaying plant matter is altered by snails and as a result promotes fungal and bacterial growth (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5). They also perform an important function in the cycling of calcium in the environment, which is a vital soil nutrient (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5).

In addition to the benefits provided towards soil fertility, snails are also a food and nutrient source to other species. Being rich in calcium, snails provide this nutrient to amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, birds, and other invertebrates, even to the extent as serving as the primary source of calcium for some species (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5-6). Mollusk declines in Europe have been associated with a decrease in the reproductive success of certain songbirds (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 6). Plant pollination, fungi dispersal, and seed dispersal also benefit from terrestrial mollusks (Jordan & Black, 2012, p. 7). Finally, vacated snail shells serve as sites for shelter and reproduction for insects (Center for Biological Diversity, 2014, p. 5).

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