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Rare Salamander Enters Debate Over Casinos And Sprawl

If you tried, you probably could not design a better candidate for extinction than the California tiger salamander.

It matures slowly and breeds rarely, individuals seldom managing to mate more than once in a lifetime. Its habitat is restricted mainly to low-elevation grasslands, which in California have been converted almost entirely into agricultural fields hostile to its survival. It breeds and lays its eggs almost exclusively in vernal pools, ephemeral bodies of water that have all but disappeared from the state as a result of urban development and farming. Cars smash tiger salamanders. They get washed down storm drains, trapped in utility boxes, caught behind curbs. Parasites infest them and cause deformities. Their larvae are eaten by a wide range of introduced species.

It is not a surprise that California tiger salamanders are rare. What is unusual is the remarkably slow pace at which the regulatory establishment has moved in response to repeated alarms about the species' status, as well as the way the stocky little amphibians have become central figures in a pair of unrelated controversies.

As early as 1966, biologists recommended that the salamander be included on the first federal endangered species list. The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) first proposed protections for it in 1972. The tiger salamander was formerly categorized as a state species of special concern in 1994, but, it was not until 2000 that the species received formal federal protection.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) recognizes three distinct salamander population segments, which are so far removed from each other that interbreeding among them is unlikely. The Santa Barbara County population was listed as endangered in 2000. The Sonoma County population was designated an endangered species under an emergency action in 2002, and permanently listed as endangered in 2003. The Central California population, which persists mainly in scattered locations along the edges of the Central Valley, was proposed for listing as threatened in May 2003.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental organization that has been using the USFWS as a punching bag in court for the past few years (see CP&DR Environment Watch, November 2001), has played a key role in the provision of federal protection for the salamander. The center sued the agency and won emergency listing of the Santa Barbara population in 2000. It filed a petition to have the Sonoma County population listed in 2001 and then sued when the agency failed to act on the petition within the statutory deadline. That suit led to a settlement under which USFWS agreed to the emergency listing of the Sonoma population and proposed listing the Central California population as threatened.

In January 2004, CBD filed a petition with the state to have tiger salamander populations statewide listed under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), contending that at least 118 development projects are under way in current or potential California tiger salamander habitat proof, CDB argues, "that the species does not receive sufficient protection under either the California Environmental Quality Act or the federal Clean Water Act."

Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the primary authors of the petition, said she expects the state Fish and Game Commission to respond formally to the CESA listing proposal at its August 5 meeting.

The deadline for the USFWS to issue a final ruling on the status of the Central California population was May 15, 2004, but the Bush administration has filed a request with the court asking for a delay of up to six months. The judge conducted a hearing on that request on June 10.

While the state and federal governments dawdle, the salamander has become embroiled in the politics of growth control and Indian gaming. Both these controversies have their epicenters in Sonoma County.

According to the biologists, the entire Santa Rosa Plain was prime salamander breeding habitat, dotted with vernal pools from Windsor to Petaluma. First farming and then urban development eliminated most of that habitat, leaving the salamanders confined to a tiny fragment. "The remaining breeding sites all occur in an area 5 miles long by 4 miles wide in southwestern portion of the city of Santa Rosa, as well as parts of Rohnert Park and Cotati, which are experiencing explosive growth," according to the CBD petition.

CBD's involvement in the Sonoma County case came at the invitation of Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati, formed in 2000 to fight a 35-acre industrial park proposed near Highway 101 and Highway 116. The group argued that the park was too large for Cotati, which has only about 7,000 residents, and would contribute to urban sprawl.

The salamander also became a tool of local residents opposing a casino proposed in Rohnert Park by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria a tiny tribe that had run into fierce opposition to a previous plan for a casino near San Pablo Bay.

Development industry heavyweights have waded into the fight, spending plenty of money and calling in political favors to battle protections for the salamander, which could disrupt plans for housing and commercial development not just in Sonoma County but in the foothills along the edge of the Central Valley.

"These are the areas that are primo for new tract homes and vineyards," Siegel said.

Leading the fight is the Central California Tiger Salamander Coalition. Its members include the California Association of Winegrape Growers, California Building Industry Association, California Business Properties Association, California Cattlemen's Association, California Chamber of Commerce, Home Builders Association of Northern California, International Council of Shopping Centers, International Mass Retail Association and the Wine Institute.

"Based on the review of information on the status of, and threats facing, the species, the Central California CTS Coalition believes that the Central California population of the California tiger salamander is not currently threatened with extinction or likely to become threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future," according to a report submitted to USFWS by the coalition's law firm, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton.

According to Siegel, the Bush administration cited the coalition's formal response to the USFWS listing proposal during the June 10 hearing as "new evidence" of scientific uncertainty that warranted a delay in release of the final status determination for the Central California salamander population.

Contacts:

Robert Uram, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, (415) 774-3285.

Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity, (909) 659-6053, ext. 302.

Jim Nickles, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, (916) 414-6572.