California tiger salamander protection could affect farming

Tiger salamander
Tiger salamander courtesy University of California

SACRAMENTO — State wildlife officials Wednesday ruled that the California tiger salamander deserves protection as a threatened species, subjecting landowners to more scrutiny if they want to build or farm in the amphibian’s habitat.

The California Fish and Game Commission made the decision after finding roughly 400,000 acres of the amphibian’s habitat is threatened by future development and the expansion of farming, mostly in the Central Valley. The tiger salamander lives in nearly half the state’s counties, in a region that stretches from Yolo County north of Sacramento to Santa Barbara County. Locally, the area along Bitterwater Road in the eastern part of San Luis Obispo County is considered critical habitat for the animal.

“We have learned over the years, at our peril, that remoteness is no guarantee of conservation,” commissioner Michael Sutton said. “What is remote today may well be suburban sprawl tomorrow.”

The 3-2 vote came over the objections of the wine industry, business groups and homebuilders, which complained scientists were unable to show accurate population counts for the salamander and had exaggerated how much rural land might be developed in the future.

“This recommendation relies principally on anticipated loss of habitat,” Tim Schmelzer, who oversees regulatory affairs at the Wine Institute, told the commission. “That projected loss is considerably overstated.”

For example, similar federal protections and local city and county plans that guide future development were not consulted, Schmelzer said.

At least one commissioner agreed with the industry, questioning state scientists who predicted at least a third of the salamander habitat would be developed over the next 10 years without any protection.

“It’s insanity. It will never happen,” said commissioner Daniel Richards, who voted against the listing.

The tiger salamander breeds in seasonal pools and ponds, but spends most of its 10-year life underground primarily in the Central Valley. Those key spawning habitats have severely diminished over the years. In 1997, only 12 percent of the Central Valley’s 5 million acres of historical seasonal pools remained, said Sonke Mastrup, chief deputy director at the Department of Fish and Game.

The remaining habitat is also at risk for being broken up and isolating the species, Mastrup said.

The tiger salamander was listed as a federally protected species in 2004 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The state commission, which met in Ontario east of Los Angeles, had twice previously denied listing the salamander, and was sued in 2004 by the Center for Biological Diversity. A state appellate court ordered the Department of Fish and Game to reconsider the issue.

“I think we are beholden to the law, beholden to the biology and I think we have no choice,” said commissioner Richard Rogers.

State law is typically more protective of vulnerable species than federal law, leading to worries that farmers, developers and vintners might have to do more to protect the salamander if they want to build or move into sensitive habitat.

Farmers and developers in Santa Barbara, where the salamander is considered an endangered species under federal law, already have been required to set aside land for the species.

While it’s unclear how the state intends to implement its regulation, Schmelzer, who also spoke on behalf of the building industry, said the commission’s action will create “more hoops” for businesses.

“Suddenly projects that are within the habitat that will be protected are going to be subject to two layers of approvals,” Schmelzer said in an interview after the vote. “It’s a waste of time and money.”