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Photograph by Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences

Infernal Vernal: If gosh-darn nature didn't keep getting in the way, the whole tricounty area could be paved tomorrow.

Sallys Score Small

California tiger salamanders win--kind of

By Joy Lanzendorfer

After almost three years, a committee of community and government representatives has created a plan tha t would set aside between 3,300 and 4,250 acres in southwest Santa Rosa for nine California tiger salamander preserves. Once the parameters of the salamander habitat are officially defined, stalled construction projects may be able to resume at last. However, such factors as where exactly the preserves will be and who will pay for them have yet to be decided. But while environmentalists endorse the plan itself, they are worried about what will happen as details are worked out.

"We're all very concerned that the Implementation Committee might find it necessary to change some basic element of the strategy in a way that will harm the salamander," says Keith Kaulum, who represented several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, in developing the plan.

The Implementation Committee has the job of deciding where the preserves will go. Since the best thing for the salamander would be several continuous blocks of undisturbed land, Kaulum is concerned that the land will be split up into too many lots, creating a checkerboard effect with patches of preserve intersected by development and roads.

"Fragmentation is the toughest issue we face," he says. "The whole idea here is that the preserves would ideally be chunks of several hundred acres. But our experience with the landowner representatives is that they want to have fewer restrictions, making it more fragmented."

It's estimated that between 75 to 98 percent of California's native grasslands have been destroyed. This is particularly difficult for a creature like the California tiger salamander, which developed to fit into a highly specialized niche in this ecosystem. The salamanders spend most of their lives underground in abandoned rodent burrows, venturing out only when the rainy season starts. On stormy nights, they roam approximately 300 to 2,000 feet to mate in nearby vernal pools--large, long-lasting puddles that form in the winter and dry out in the summer. When the weather warms, they make a run for the nearest burrow again.

Since they travel so much, these salamanders are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of paved parking lots or roads. In Sonoma County, every known breeding pool is within 400 meters of a road. "It can disrupt their breeding behavior," says Al Donner, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). "If they don't have easy access to water, they may spend more time in their burrows and do not breed."

Unlike the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team, which created the plan, the Implementation Committee doesn't have an independent environmental representative like Kaulum. It is made up of members from city, county and federal governments, including the FWS and the Department of Fish and Game. Environmentalists worry that the committee will be influenced by the cities, which want development to resume as soon as possible to bring in new tax revenue.

Even before the plan reached the Implementation Committee, there were compromises between the groups. The plan says some 10 percent of the land can be outside the conservation areas, which means even smaller blocks of land and more fragmentation. In addition, there's some talk of creating a management plan where yet another committee would review how well the strategy is working and have the power to change boundaries if needed, an idea some feel puts the salamander in political danger. The business community, on the other hand, is concerned that pressure from environmentalists will push up fees and shut down construction. Projects that have been stalled since this breed of salamander was declared endangered in 2003 include several affordable housing complexes, a shopping mall and even an elementary school.

Yet no one knows how many California tiger salamanders there are in Sonoma County, nor can anyone say how quickly they are declining, since they spend most of their lives underground and are nearly impossible to count. The emergency endangered species listing of the amphibian was based on habitat destruction resulting in the disappearance of vernal pools. But this salamander can also breed in other bodies of water, such as creeks and ponds, which might indicate they are more adaptive than originally thought.

More than anything, the business community is worried about how much saving these salamanders will cost them. At this point, no one knows. The oft-quoted figure of $400 million is just one estimate based on a private conservation group's analysis of how much it would cost to buy, prepare and maintain 4,000 acres. However, the real cost will depend on where the land comes from. For example, if the preserves use existing public land, the cost would go down considerably.

The preserves most likely won't be public parks, but they may have some limited economical use such as dairy ranching, since cattle don't disturb the burrows the endangered creatures live in. Other agriculture, like vineyards, probably won't be allowed.

All and all, believes Kolin, it's too early to tell. "We don't know yet what types of complementary uses may be incorporated, but it may be possible for some types agriculture to continue, like some cattle grazing," he says. "The management and use still has to be established at this point."

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From the August 17-23, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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