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Photograph by Gerald and Buff Corsi

Homelessness Crisis: The California tiger salamander is in danger of losing its habitat to an office park.

Salamander Sorrows

Sonoma County's California tiger salamander is at the center of a battle against development

By Joy Lanzendorfer

The California tiger salamander is a cute little guy, as amphibians go. It's a thickset, fairly large animal--ranging six to eight inches--with a short snout and eyes like black beads on the top of its head. Its skin is slick and black with yellow spots on its sides, tail, and back; its legs stick out from its body at wayward angles, like some sort of windup bath toy.

But you aren't likely to see one unless you're out on a rainy night in early winter, when salamanders emerge from their underground burrows for mating season. And even then you would have to be near a body of water, like a vernal pond, which is dry in the summer and wet in the winter, or somewhere in the path between the pond and the salamander's tunnel--a distance that can often span more than a mile.

And yet this shy creature is at the center of controversy in Sonoma County, thanks to its recent emergency listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species. The business community is up in arms about the possible effect this listing may have on future and proposed developments, while environmentalists claim that growth and economic impact always come second to the survival of a species. And even more troubling, some are saying that the salamander is being used as an excuse for antigrowth politics and that this issue is evidence that Sonoma County is becoming more of a target for new environmental regulations.

Small Scapegoat

On July 16, the FWS granted emergency protection to the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander under the Endangered Species Act. The emergency listing came after the Berkeley-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition and lawsuit against the FWS. As a result, the salamander has endangered status for 240 days while the FWS determines whether the creature warrants permanent protection. In most cases, emergency listings lead to permanent listings.

Until a decision on permanent listing is made, it is a crime to disturb or harm a tiger salamander, punishable by jail time and a fine. The emergency listing protects seven vernal ponds in Sonoma County, which are the only known breeding sites for the salamander.

The FWS has defined the salamander's potential breeding sites as anywhere within the Santa Rosa Plain, which stretches from southwest Santa Rosa to Cotati. Any developments within that area must now go through the FWS. According to Jim Nickles, an FWS spokesperson, the critical habitats will be further defined assuming that the salamander is permanently listed.

Several specific sites near the former Santa Rosa Naval Air Station have already been identified. Two of these sites are already protected, but urban development has been proposed on or near three more of the known breeding sites, according to the FWS. It is unclear how these proposed developments will be influenced in the long run by the salamander.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn't communicated what they're going to do yet," says Victor Gonzalez of Monahan Pacific Construction in San Rafael. "That's what everyone is asking. As many as 40 or 50 projects could be affected."

At least one local construction project will be delayed by the emergency listing: the South Sonoma Business Park in Cotati. The 35-acre site, which is located along Highway 116 and can be seen off
U.S. 101, is owned by Monahan Pacific. The park would provide Sonoma County with 583,000 square feet of office space and 45 new townhouses.

From the very beginning, the business park has been opposed by some Cotati residents who have been notoriously reluctant to embrace growth. In 2000, when the South Sonoma Business Park was first proposed, a group called the Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati formed. The group was outspoken in its efforts to stop the development, speaking at city council meetings, filing appeals, and circulating petitions. The group felt that the small town of Cotati, with only about 7,000 residents, would be unable to sustain the estimated 2,500 jobs the park would bring into the town, causing housing, water, and traffic problems.

"The park is so out of proportion with the town of Cotati, we thought it would split the town in two," says Jenny Blaker, a Cotati citizen and former member of the group. "But not only does the growth induce potential sprawl in Cotati, it would push into other towns and cause sprawl in the entire county."

The Cotati City Council, which in 2001 had newly elected "business friendly" members, approved the project. The park has been estimated to bring in more than $1 million in tax revenue.

Seeing that the city council was unresponsive to their demands, the Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati contacted the Center for Biological Diversity for help in stopping the business park.

"They did get us involved, partially for the tiger salamander and partially to help stop this big, ugly, sprawling development," says Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Every state agency unwisely approved this project, even though they knew the status of the salamander."

But even though the California tiger salamander issue came up through an antigrowth battle, state and federal agencies alike have ignored the Sonoma County population of the salamander for some years now. In fact, environmentalists have been concerned about the salamander for nearly 10 years.

In 1992 UC Davis professor Bradley Shaffer petitioned the federal government for statewide protection of the salamander. In 1994 the salamander was given "warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing" status, which means that the salamander should be listed but the service hasn't gotten around to it yet. In 2000 the salamander was emergency listed in Santa Barbara County and was later given permanent endangered status for that area.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition with the FWS for protection of the Sonoma County population. Upon receiving no response, the center filed a lawsuit in February accusing the FWS of ignoring their petition and of keeping the salamander in "warranted, but precluded purgatory," explains Cummings.

Emergency listings are rare and are only given when a species is in serious jeopardy or their habitat risks irreparable damage. Aside from emergency listing for the California tiger salamander in Santa Barbara and Sonoma Counties, the only other emergency listings in recent memory were granted for the big horn sheep in the Sierra Nevada and the kangaroo rat in San Bernardino County.

The Sonoma County population received its own emergency listing because it is isolated from other salamanders, making it what the FWS calls a "distinct population segment." Its closest brothers are separated by nearly 50 miles and are located in Contra Costa, Yolo, and Solano counties. Since there is no natural interchange among groups of salamanders, the Sonoma County population is genetically distinct from other groups.

Casualty of Growth

Scientists say it's nearly impossible to estimate the number of tiger salamanders in Sonoma County, partly because they hide underground for most of the year and partly because their numbers are dependent on the climate. However, known populations have decreased, according to research used in the petition to the FWS, which was gathered by Sonoma State University professor Phil Northern and research biologist Dave Cook.

"Several populations of the salamander known by local and amateur scientists have disappeared," says Northern. "Though it's virtually impossible to get exact numbers, scientists are able to tell that there are less and less of them as time goes on."

Urbanization is one of the largest threats to the California tiger salamander. Ideally, habitats are made up of reserves of multiple breeding ponds surrounded by 1,000 acres or more, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. In Sonoma County, four known breeding sites were lost within the last two years due to urbanization, according to Cook. Scientists determine loss of habitat by tracking the salamander's historical territory.

"To estimate whether the population is depleting, you have to look at the salamander's historic habitat, most of which has been eliminated," says Cook. "Historically, vernal pools have occurred in the Santa Rosa Plain, which stretches from Windsor all the way to Petaluma. Now their habitat has been restricted to one slim strip of land."

Other factors have affected the lives of the Sonoma County population as well. Because they roam so much during the breeding season, the salamanders are endangered by traffic. For example, according to the FWS, between Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, 2001, 26 California tiger salamanders were found dead on Stony Point Road.

The salamanders also have low birth rates. They typically live four to six years before they breed, so it's estimated that half of adults only breed once in their lifetimes, which can last up to 11 years but normally lasts closer to five or six years. If there is a drought, the salamanders may not breed at all.

Scientists believe the loss of habitat, high death rates, and low birth rates are enough to warrant looking into protecting the population. Environmentalists claim they have a moral responsibility to protect species from extinction.

"It's an extremely arrogant and unwise step to remove any portion of this planet," says Cummings. "Every species on this planet has its own worth and value."

Gone Salamandering

But some are saying that the science presented in the FWS petition is uneven at best. Because scientists were unable to estimate how many salamanders are in Sonoma County or by how much the population is decreasing, the FWS may be needlessly halting development by issuing an emergency listing, and, worse, they may be relying on what it called "junk science" or faulty data.

"Anytime you make decisions without hard data, you run the risk of making bad decisions," says Mike Falasco of the Wine Institute, an industry lobby group in Sacramento. "The private land-owning community in Sonoma County is concerned because the listing was based on a spotty record with no hard data. The decisions the service makes will have a permanent effect on Sonoma County."

Faulty data among environmental groups has been more of a concern lately in light of the recent spotted owl controversy. A report in 2000 by the FWS indicated that the original listing said there were fewer than 2,000 pairs of the spotted owl and that they could only live in old growth forest. Newer data suggested that there are well over 3,500 pairs of owls and that they flourish well within new growth forest as well as old growth.

According to a Washington Times article published in March, the U.S. Forest Service did not have a "rational basis" for halting timber sales to Wetsel-Oviatt Lumber Company or for halting timber sales to other lumber companies in the 1990s. The article indicates that the Forest Service knew their data was faulty but acted anyway. The federal government paid Wetsel-Oviatt $9.5 million and $15 million to other lumber companies for halting timber sales.

"Has a delisting process begun on the spotted owl? No," says Falasco. "There are many elements of the environmental community that want whatever isn't developed to remain that way forever, regardless of the economic impact."

But Sonoma County has a greater chance of becoming like Santa Barbara than do areas in Oregon and Northern California affected by the spotted owl. After emergency listing of the tiger salamander in Santa Barbara, industries had a harder time getting development passed.

"A winery might apply for 1,000 acres and end up with only 11 approved acres," says Falasco.

The business community fears that in addition to stronger antigrowth feelings, environmentalists are increasingly focusing on agriculture, which might have severe impact on Sonoma County's second largest industry: wine.

In addition to the problems that may arise if a tiger salamander is found near a piece of potential land, vineyards are also seeing more restrictions on wetlands, water supply, tree preservation, and vineyard development fees.

"There have been a lot of environmental regulations for some time, but industries like agriculture and wineries are becoming the focus where they haven't been before," says Judy Davidoff, attorney at San Francisco's Steefel, Levitt & Weiss. "It really depends on the project and the zoning involved, but in general it is becoming more of a problem."

However, others feel that the tiger salamander won't have a detrimental effect on Sonoma County development. Even projects directly affected, like the South Sonoma Business Park, were slowed more by the down economy than by environmentalists.

The FWS downplayed the outcome of a permanent listing on projects. "There is a concept that endangered species stop development, yet development is thriving in the Bay Area," says FWS spokesperson Pat Foulk. "An endangered species doesn't mean development will stop. It may slow it down, but it will eventually catch up. It just means there are more hoops that developers have to jump through."

As it stands right now, owners of properties under the emergency listing must apply for a "take" permit, which is designed to prevent the killing, harming, or harassment of a federally listed species. Getting a take permit is a lengthy process. It includes filing an application, which is then followed by a formal consultation through the FWS, which writes a biological opinion on the proposed development and reviews if and how the project will move forward.

All of this means more red tape. The addition of the salamander to the endangered species list may become a costly and time-consuming problem for developers. It can mean delays in projects, costly permits, and a redesign of plans. Even worse, sometimes it can stop a project dead in its tracks.

"I think the salamander situation will negatively affect the economy," says Davidoff. "The longer a project takes, the more expensive it is. It scares people away."

An Oct. 1 public hearing on the listing in Santa Rosa "was well attended," according to FWS' Nickles, "with testimony from people on both sides of the issue. It was an opportunity for people to ask questions as part of the official record. We will have to answer those questions if we make the listing permanent."

Prior to the listing, Monahan Pacific satisfied mitigation requirements from the Department of Fish and Game (the state agency) regarding the salamander and other environmental concerns about the business park, which included hiring a biologist to look for all endangered species on the property. Salamander larvae were found on the site but were moved under the guidance of the state. Monahan even purchased the new habitat for the salamander.

"We feel we've fully mitigated," says Gonzalez. "The state feels the same way."

The FWS has extended the formal comment period on the permanent listing of the Sonoma County California tiger salamander from Sept. 20 to Oct. 21. Written comments may be sent to Wayne S. White, Field Supervisor, Attn: CTS, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2800 Cottage Way, Room W-2605, Sacramento, CA 95825. Comments can also be faxed to 916.414.6713 or e-mailed to [email protected].

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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