A small population of endangered snails in Banff is dead after the thermal spring in which they live stopped flowing.
On Monday (March 14), Parks Canada and snail expert Dwayne Lepitzki discovered the Kidney Spring had run dry as predicted, albeit slightly earlier than was anticipated.
“It’s a sad situation. There was no water there at all. I picked up a couple of individuals. I think one was barely alive and one was not,” said Lepitzki.
“If the water comes back in the next few days there might be a chance for the population, but typically it doesn’t come back until spring runoff and that’s around May 20.”
Lepitzki said he plans to go in and do the regular survey this coming Friday and get a better handle on whether any snails have survived.
He suspects they are all dead.
“We can always hold out hope that there might be a little pocket of water, but from what I saw, it certainly doesn’t look like it,” he said.
The lemon-seed sized snails on Sulphur Mountain, known as Physella johnsoni, are found nowhere else in the world and survive in only seven hot springs.
Kidney Spring is one of those springs, and this is only the second time in recorded history the Kidney Spring has stopped flowing.
The flow was down to a trickle last spring, but the last time it completely ran dry was in 2002. The snail population was re-established the following year and has thrived since.
Despite predictions the springs would run dry this year, there was no finalized emergency response plan for the endangered species and no facility in which to put some snails.
Parks Canada made the decision last week against intervening and rescuing the snails, instead opting to “let nature take its course”.
The federal agency now plans to look at the water flows in fall before deciding on whether or not to reintroduce the snail population there.
Charlie Pacas, Parks Canada’s aquatics specialist, said Parks will also keep a close eye on the flows in other springs in the area.
“We will continue to monitor other locations to ensure we have significant flows because we want to make sure those other snail populations persist,” he said.
As for Kidney Spring, Pacas said Parks would need to make sure there are consistent flows before making a decision on whether to re-introduce snails.
“In 2003, when we put the snails back there, we didn’t anticipate eight years later we would see a drying event,” he said.
“We learned from that, and before and if we re-establish snails there, we want to make sure we’ve taken a look at the flow data and base a decision on that.”
The Upper Hot Springs have also run dry at least 12 times in the last 15 years, prompting Parks Canada to fill the thermal pool with municipal tap water in dry periods.
The only other documented times the Upper Hot Springs experienced low flows or completely stopped flowing were in 1923 and 1970.
While there are many theories, scientists believe recent flow anomalies in the springs are ultimately caused by climate change.
Mike McIvor, president of Bow Valley Naturalists, said Parks Canada’s decision to “let nature takes its course” is anything but that.
“If this appears to be in any way related to global warming, then that’s not exactly letting nature take its course,” he said.
“That’s imposing an increasing human boot print on the planetary ecosystem.”
McIvor said there is so much uncertainty around the future flow patterns.
“But I would think with an endangered species you would take every possible precautionary step to hang onto those populations,” he said.