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California tiger salamander
San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 2010

State: Tiger salamander a threatened species
By The Associated Press

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 to Santa Barbara County.

"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 home builders, 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 (San Bernardino County), 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.

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.

© 2010 Hearst Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton