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California tiger salamander
San Francisco Chronicle, August 19, 2009

Sonoma salamander battle expected to heat up
By Peter Fimrite

The sniping over a decision to restore protections in Sonoma County for the California tiger salamander is expected to heat up over the next two months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the public debate Tuesday.

Environmentalists, developers, farmers, homeowners and salamander aficionados have 60 days to comment on a decision by the Obama administration to restrict development on 74,223 acres of habitat deemed critical for the survival of the endangered amphibian.

The proposed rule, which will take two years to become final, would reverse a Bush administration decision to drop restrictions on development in an area between Windsor and Petaluma known as the Santa Rosa Plain.

"We know there is going to be heavy lobbying by development and agricultural interests," said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It is an opportunity for the Obama administration to clean up the Bush legacy."

In May, the Fish and Wildlife Service settled a lawsuit by the nonprofit center challenging the decision made in 2005 under President George W. Bush to withdraw the designation of the land as critical habitat for the salamander.

The tiger salamander, which has distinctive black and yellow coloring and spots and grows up to 8 inches in length, once occupied the entire Santa Rosa Plain, but now lives in only seven locations. It is threatened with extinction by urban sprawl, roads and pesticides. The salamander's Sonoma County population was declared endangered in 2003 in response to earlier lawsuits. Farmers, home builders and others whose development or commercial activities were restricted responded with their own lawsuit.

A federal judge upheld the listing, but the Bush administration instead endorsed a local conservation plan that was supposed to have banned development in a few areas and required builders to replace salamander grounds they damaged, but the funding to carry out that plan never materialized.

The settlement, approved by a federal judge, requires the agency to submit the final salamander habitat boundaries by July 2011.

How to comment

To comment on the California tiger salamander proposal, submit written comments under Docket No. FWS-R8-ES-2009-0044 until Oct. 19 at www.regulations.gov. Comments can also be mailed to the attention of FWS-R8-ES-2009-0044, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.

Information can also be found at www.biologicaldiversity.org.

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton