Obama administration tries to save local salamander
SONOMA COUNTY -- The Obama administration has reversed a Bush administration decision and is proposing to restrict development on 74,000 acres in Sonoma County that is habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service settled a lawsuit this week by an environmental group challenging its decision in 2005, under President George W. Bush, to withdraw the designation of land on the Santa Rosa Plain as critical habitat for the rare amphibian.
The area covers farmland, housing and open space from Windsor in the north to Skillman Road northwest of Petaluma.
Under the agency's proposal, any development that might harm the salamander or its habitat would have to be cleared with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal officials could require developers to take protective measures or make offsetting investments in nearby land set aside to protect the species.
"The California tiger salamander will finally receive the protection it needs to survive," Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit, said Thursday.
The tiger salamander is relatively large, 7 to 8 inches long, and is black with yellow spots. The creature once occupied the entire Santa Rosa Plain, Greenwald said, but now lives in only a few locations and is threatened with extinction by urban sprawl.
The agency declared the salamander's Sonoma population an endangered species in 2003, in response to earlier lawsuits, and was sued a year later by farmers, home builders and others whose development or commercial activities were restricted as a result.
A federal judge upheld the listing. The Bush administration proposed setting aside 74,000 acres as critical habitat in August 2005, but changed course four months later and endorsed a conservation plan backed by developers, local governments and some environmental groups. It would have banned development in only a few areas but required builders to replace, at a 3-1 ratio, any known salamander grounds they damaged.
That plan was never carried out, however, because local governments ran short of funding to implement it, said Al Donner, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento.
The settlement, approved by a federal judge, requires the agency to propose the critical habitat area for public comment within 90 days and submit the final boundaries by July 2011.
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