California tiger salamander gets federal ‘threatened’ status

Federal wildlife officials have designated the California tiger salamander a “threatened” species, angering developers and construction groups that say the speckled amphibian is not immediately imperiled and its protection will add an expensive, lengthy process to current and future building projects.

The designation could affect projects planned for any area that supports the salamander’s habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which announced its decision July 26, designated nearly 400,000 acres in 20 counties as the salamander’s critical habitat.

“A lot of projects will now have to go through another very burdensome process, one that involves a lot of money and unpredictable delays,” Guy Bjerke, chief operating officer for the Home Builders Association of Northern California, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Construction is already at a standstill at Fort Ord, a former Army base, until the Fort Ord Reuse Authority can complete a habitat management plan spelling out protective measures for the salamander and other protected species that live on 10,000 acres designated for construction of housing units, a hotel and golf course. A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said it would take one to two years for a conservation plan to be completed.

Meanwhile, developers who have already sunk millions of dollars into the project say further delays will cost millions more. A management plan detailing how the tiger salamander and other threatened animal and plant species can be accommodated elsewhere has been in the works for seven years.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, developers with projects that might affect threatened or endangered species have three options: modifying the project; mitigating for impacts; or purchasing credits in a conservation bank – a project involving the ecological restoration of land.

The California Natural Resources Group, an organization seeking to reform the Endangered Species Act, said the ruling was based on biased and outdated information. “The listing decision will impact critically needed infrastructure projects, affordable housing, school construction and farming activities,” the group said in a statement.

The tiger salamander, a 6- to 8-inch-long black amphibian with cream-colored to yellow spots, spends much of its life sleeping underground near vernal pools and cattle stock ponds. The salamander has lost 75 percent of its native habitat and is threatened by cross breeding with non-native species.

Environmental groups asked federal authorities to protect the species in 1992, and the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled two years later the status was warranted, but the agency didn’t have the resources to protect the salamander. The decision to list the species as threatened was sparked by a lawsuit the Center for Biological Diversity filed in 2002.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to issue a rule to protect the salamander by May 15, but the Bush administration asked for a delay until after the November elections. A federal judge then ordered the agency to issue a listing by late July.

For more information, go to the Fish and Wildlife Service website by clicking the link to the right.