The federal government has announced plans to set aside more than 2,500 acres of the fast-developing Central Coast as critical habitat for an endangered snail.
Most of the land being mapped out for the tiny Morro shoulderband snail is in Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo, but 615 adjacent acres are in private hands.
The designation of critical habitat, which will take effect next year, does not prohibit development. For large housing projects, it could require special permits guaranteeing no harm to the protected creatures. For smaller projects, the designation serves as a warning that endangered species are present and must not be harmed.
The shoulderband snail, named for a spiral marking on its left shoulder, is an inch long. Discovered in 1911 in the Los Osos area, it was declared endangered in 1994 because its habitat of coastal dunes, shrubs and maritime chaparral was being destroyed by development, off-road vehicles and nonnative species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not at that time set aside land for the snail; that decision eventually prompted a lawsuit last year by the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona.
The suit on behalf of the snail named six other endangered species in a kind of zoological class action to force the government to change what the environmental group called a policy of refusing to set aside critical habitat.
The other species included a Santa Cruz Mountains grasshopper, the Alameda whip snake, the arroyo toad, the San Bernardino kangaroo rat, and two species of Alaskan sea ducks. Land is being set aside for those species.
"Prior to the litigation, the Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in a policy of never setting up habitat when listing species" as endangered, said Brendan Cummings, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Cummings said the federal government settled the suit in November and "capitulated" on the policy. "The tide is turned," said Cummings.
In that way, the snail served a far more important purpose than it might appear. "While the Morro shoulderband snail is an obscure species, it was part of a litigation that we believe was fundamental in changing federal policy," Cummings said.
"Therefore, endangered species throughout the country will be better protected."
While not admitting that the agency had a policy against naming critical habitat, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service admitted that it had become the custom not to map out habitat areas.
"Over the years, we did not designate critical habitat for the vast majority of species," said Hugh Vickery in Washington, D.C.
He said the agency thought the designation did not add much protection for endangered creatures, and it was intent on using its money to do more effective conservation work.
But over the years, the agency was sued numerous times for failing to set up habitat areas. "We're under a lot of court orders now," said Vickery. "We're going to do 100 designations of critical habitat this year."
As a result of all this, he said, the agency is preparing a new policy to define how to handle critical habitat designations in the future.