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Northwest NIMBYs discover the perfect endangered species.

Texas may have its armadillos, and Florida its panthers. But when it comes to official animals, though, the District of Columbia has nothing. We’ve got an official bird—the wood thrush—and an official tree—the scarlet oak—but if you’re looking for an official animal mascot roaming D.C.’s 68 square miles, you’re out of luck.

A nonstate entity with no countryside to speak of, the District forces its resident naturalists to settle for exploring crevices in Rock Creek Park and exclaiming over errant Tidal Basin beavers. If we held a contest for an official animal, mundane contenders like the squirrel would face stiff competition from metaphoric candidates sporting national name recognition. Beltway fat cats, anyone?

And yet the District of Columbia does have one native species that’s all its own. Like the city it calls home, this little critter is too often ignored, dismissed, and forced underground. For years, even National Park Service experts and biologists have been trying to keep it under wraps.

It’s little. It’s blind. It’s pale as can be. And it’s ours.

Found only inside the District, the Hay’s Spring amphipod lives under layers of muck and leaves in a spring on the grounds of the National Zoo. Discovered in 1940 and named in honor of District biologist William P. Hay, the shrimplike animal has since been found at two aqueous sites in Rock Creek Park.

Now, though, after decades of humble obscurity, the blind, subterranean crustacean has been thrust into the limelight. And Stygobromus hayi is earning its 15 minutes in the most appropriate of D.C. fashions: Its muddy ecosystem has become the site of a development battle between two far better-known local species: Neighborhoodus nimbyus and Developorus avaricius. Locals are battling Clark Realty Capital over the firm’s plan to build a nine-story, 168-unit apartment building at 3883 Connecticut Ave. NW—a locale they describe as crucial to the endangered amphipod’s survival.

Thanks to the indigenous species, a debate about developing a wooded lot in Cleveland Park has turned into a crusade to protect an endangered hometown species. “It’s our secret weapon,” says anti-development neighbor David Maddox, describing the “rare and elusive” creature that happens to be federally listed as endangered.

Maddox, a staff botanist at the Nature Conservancy with a Ph.D. in evolutionary ecology from Cornell University, lives in an apartment at 3901 Connecticut Ave NW. In his back yard, residents park cars on a lot near a magnolia tree and look out over what for years was a wooded expanse stretching toward the Kuwaiti Embassy on Tilden Street. Maddox, through a group called Friends of Tilden Park, has been leading the fight to stop the proposed construction in Clark’s lot.

The amphipod has never been found at the site of Clark’s planned development. No matter, says Maddox: “The actual habitat is subterranean, so if you don’t see the amphipod, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.” The tiny animal is hard to find, he claims, and the developer hasn’t spent enough time looking. “We feel that a survey needs to be done on the property in question,” he explains.

Whether it disturbs an amphipod habitat or not, the development scheme will surely change the view out Maddox’s window. Clark also wants to build a 55-unit, five-story complex of town houses on Tilden Street, right next to the proposed apartment house. The firm plans to build on half the parking lot and on the adjacent wooded area, which abuts Rock Creek Park.

In August, Clark started construction on the project, cutting down about 10 of the 78 mature trees on the property. Anti-construction activists jumped in front of a backhoe to stop them, waving a temporary stop-work order from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Now city officials are debating whether they should demand an official Environmental Impact Statement before allowing further construction.

“We are not aware of the existence of that endangered species on the property,” says Francis Coen, a development executive at Clark, who is project manager for the construction. “Our contention is that we’ve worked very closely with the District for the last two years, and our design consultants have a very carefully designed project—a great project and an attractive building that people are going to want to live in.”

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Activists are fighting to stop the construction permanently, charging that Clark misled city regulators on its Environmental Impact Screening Form. Friends of Tilden Park members say that construction will cause problems by doing everything from dangerously increasing traffic entering Connecticut Avenue to simultaneously pushing up rents and decreasing the value of adjacent historic properties.

But because good old-fashioned quality-of-life concerns may not manage to stop the construction, neighborhood arguments could well wind up tied to the fate of D.C.’s tiniest endangered species. “Even if the amphipod is not found at the place that Clark wanted to build their building, the building could do lots of damage to Hay’s Spring amphipods downstream,” says Maddox. “For aquatic species especially, the species may depend on habitat relatively far from the actual critters.”

The Melvin Hazen Stream jumps out of a culvert on the east side of Connecticut Avenue and wends its way down to Rock Creek proper through a swath of sparsely wooded forest. Cottonwoods and oaks dating back to the Civil War abound in the narrow ravine surrounding the stream, blanketing the uncluttered forest floor with fat acorns and just-fallen leaves. The occasional birch flicks its seasonal yellow leaves in the chill breezes early on a recent Friday morning when Maddox and I head into the ravine in search of the elusive amphipod.

Within moments, the din of morning traffic zipping downtown fades into the quiet cool of the forest. We tread down the well-worn Melvin Hazen Trail, tracing our steps back and forth across nicely maintained foot stones in the stream until we come to a tributary.

We head left up the muddy banks of the new stream, a tiny clear trickle across the dark and soggy ground. We climb over a log, then under one, then over one again. The banks are covered with ivy, an invasive species that creeps into the park from neighboring residential properties and drives out native plants.

A headwater a few feet away provides water from an underground aquifer. This micro-ecosystem—known as a seep—is just the sort of place one might find amphipods, says Maddox. An old tire and several rusting cans lie half-embedded in the mud. “This is not Paradise Bog here,” he says, looking at them. “But it’s a true headwater of a stream flowing into our national park.”

No one has ever documented amphipods at this site. “Springs in that locality have not yet produced any kind of amphipod,” says Bob Ford, a National Park Service ranger who knows about the Hay’s Spring amphipod. On the other hand, he concedes, “They live in the underground areas, out of sight, and what comes to the surface may be just a limited glimpse of the population.”

This is just one of the things that makes the Hay’s Spring amphipod the perfect animal for activists looking to stop construction. Because it lives underground, it is difficult to find without digging. But because it is endangered, it cannot be destroyed—which aggressive digging might do. “You have to dig in the gravels and know what you’re looking for,” explains Professor John Holsinger, a biologist at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who created and runs the Subterranean Amphipod Database.

Holsinger nominated the Hay’s Springs amphipod to the endangered species list in 1973 and has conducted several amphipod surveys in the region. So far, soft surveys—conducted by “turning over rocks,” according to Maddox—have not revealed the crustacean on Clark’s property or nearby. More intensive surveys, which involve pumping water into the ground and seeing what floats to the surface, are in the works, says amphipod defender Charlie McCormick, of the People’s Alliance for Rock Creek Park.

One of the few known Hay’s Spring habitats is about a mile away. Another is not far north, in Rock Creek Park. But activists are optimistic that this blind crustacean will wind up saving their green space. “It ain’t much,” says McCormick, “but it’s ours.”

If you want to get a good look at Stygobromus hayi, the best place to go might be a lab like Holsinger’s. Unless you look at it under the microscope, it’s hard to tell the half-inch-long Hay’s Spring amphipod from its siblings in the gammaridean suborder of squat-bodied amphipods. There are more than 7,000 described species of amphipods worldwide, adapted to a wide variety of environments. Though most live in the sea, others are found everywhere from inside creek beds to under garden pots. Examples in the fossil record date back 120 million years.

In some species of amphipods, the male expresses sexual maturity by developing bulging eyes. Other species show evidence of parental care once their young leave the maternal brood chamber. Scientists will point out their seven pairs of walking legs and three pairs of characteristic uropods, or tail-limbs. Though they can walk and swim, the amphipod specialty is the “tail flick,” a move in which the creatures jump forward after digging their uropods into the ground and thrusting their abdomens up and out. Such antics have earned beach-dwelling ‘pods the common designation of sandhoppers, or sand fleas.

Of course, if you want to see Hay’s Spring amphipods in their indigenous ecosystem, the scientists won’t help you. “The amphipods are best protected by keeping their locations anonymous, for fear that people would visit the sites and collect, trample, and pollute them,” says Ford. “Wherever sensitive species occur, one of the best protections is not publicizing locations.”

For the time being, the secretive little species may wind up pulling some powerful allies into the neighborhood quarrel. Neal Fitzpatrick, conservation director at the Audubon Naturalist Society, has urged D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams to make Clark undertake a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement examining the effects of construction on the “possible home of…the Hay’s Spring Amphipod.” D.C. Councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson have also taken up the cause, demanding a fuller environmental study before any further tree cutting or construction goes forward.

“Hay’s Spring amphipod may be unspectacular, but it is D.C.’s only endemic and one of our few federally listed endangered species. We should be proud and protective of its existence,” says Maddox. CP