A locally written plan to preserve habitat for the endangered Sonoma County tiger salamander has been accepted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in lieu of designating critical habitat.
The plan, termed the Santa Rosa Plain conservation strategy, aims to protect 3,400 to 4,200 acres of the salamander's most important remaining habitat — about 25% of the salamander's current range, or 3% to 4% of its historic range. Biologists and environmentalists question the voluntary nature of the conservation strategy and ask why more habitat cannot be preserved in light of the species' protected status. The state's other tiger salamander populations, notably in the Central Valley and Santa Barbara County, which are genetically distinct from those in the Sonoma County population and from each other, are also imperiled, having lost 75% to 99% of their historic ranges.
The Santa Rosa Plain strategy "seeks to create a long-term program to mitigate potential adverse effects on listed species due to future development on the Santa Rosa Plain." The plan aims to protect the tiger salamander and four federally endangered plant species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service first recognized the need for federal protection of the tiger salamander in 1994 but concluded the agency had neither the time nor the resources to address the matter. As a result of a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Defense Center and others, Fish and Wildlife in 2000 granted the Santa Barbara population segment endangered status. The resolution of a similar lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2001 granted the Sonoma County population segment endangered status in 2003, and also led to the threatened listing of the Central California population in 2004 (see CP&DR Environment Watch, July 2004).
But when Fish and Wildlife finally listed the Central California population segment, the Service also decided to disregard the genetic distinctions between the three segments. The agency also downgraded the status of the Santa Barbara and Sonoma County populations to match that of the Central California population.
In August 2005, U.S. District Judge William Alsup vacated the agency's decision, calling it arbitrary and capricious. As a result of the court ruling, the listing status of the Santa Barbara and Sonoma County populations reverted to endangered.
The Fish and Wildlife Service then designated 199,109 acres of critical habitat for the tiger salamander throughout the state, but none in Sonoma County. The agency's policy is to not designate critical habitat in areas where the agency finds that a local plan can adequately address the threats to an endangered species, said agency spokesman Al Donner. The agency is confident that the Santa Rosa Plain strategy will adequately achieve the agency's objectives, he said.
Usually, the replacement for designated critical habitat comes in the form of locally driven habitat conservation plans (HCPs), which are becoming common throughout the state. The Santa Rosa Plain strategy is not an HCP. Rather, it is an admittedly novel process originally conceived by local developers and municipalities worried that the designation of critical habitat might hinder future development. The strategy was proposed as a way to protect the salamander's most critical habitat and streamline development.
"The Service wanted us to start from scratch," said Charles Carson, of the Home Builders Association of Northern California, "And we've come up with a locally developed process that I think has worked out very well."
Under the conservation strategy, two acres will be preserved within one of the region's eight proposed conservation areas for every acre of habitat developed within 1.3 miles of known breeding areas – a region that encompasses much of the plain. Five of the salamander conservation areas lie to the west and south of Santa Rosa, and three lie to the west and south/southeast of Cotati. All of the conservation areas lie adjacent to urban growth boundaries, with some portions inside the boundaries.
For projects lying within potential salamander habitat, but more than 1.3 miles from known breeding grounds, a mitigation requirement of 0.2:1 will apply. The ratios were developed based on the expectation that the next ten years worth of growth will generate enough credits to achieve the overall conservation goals. The cost of the mitigation is intended to include financial endowments for ongoing land management.
However, participation in the program is totally voluntary, an aspect that concerns environmentalists. They also say it is unclear that federal officials have a right to accept the strategy at all.
Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), pointed to a case in which his organization defeated an attempt by Fish and Wildlife to substitute local management plans for millions of acres of critical spotted owl habitat in Arizona and New Mexico. In that case (Center for Biological Diversity v. Norton, 240 F. Supp. 2d, 1090 (2003)) a U.S. District Court judge ruled that other habitat protections are not an acceptable substitute for designating critical habitat. The CBD has also contested in federal court the use of HCPs in lieu of critical habitat to protect California's endangered arroyo toad. Cummings expects that case to be decided in the next couple of months.
No suits have yet been filed opposing the Sonoma County plan, and nobody involved thinks that a locally driven process is a bad idea. There are concerns, however.
"The strategy addresses the core habitat areas fairly well," said Kassie Siegel, another CBD attorney. "But we have serious concerns about how it will be implemented."
The tiger salamander breeds solely in vernal pools, and adults can travel up to 1.3 miles between pools and their homes, which are usually abandoned boroughs in nearby oak woodlands and grasslands.
"Adequate protection means protecting continuous stretches of habitat," said Dave Cook, a local water agency employee who wrote his masters thesis on tiger salamanders. "The best science available suggests that, as a rule of thumb, it takes 500 acres or more to ensure the necessary components of tiger salamander habitat."
"There is no mechanism in the plan that ensures the preservation of viable preserves" said Cook, a sentiment echoed by Siegel. They are concerned that the resulting pattern of land conservation could resemble a checkerboard.
To further protect the tiger salamander, CBD and other environmental groups have sued the California Fish and Game Commission to get the species listed under the California Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected by summer.
Charles Carson, Home Builders Association of Northern California, (925) 820-7626.
Al Donner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (916) 414-6566.
Dave Cook, salamander expert, (707) 591-9727.
Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232.
Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy website: www.fws.gov/sacramento/es/santa_rosa_conservation.html