For Immediate Release, December 16, 2008
Barbara Vlamis, Butte Environmental Council, (530) 891-6424
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Conservation Groups Threaten Lawsuit Over Central Valley
Water Transfers Harmful to Endangered Giant Garter Snake
SAN FRANCISCO— The Butte Environmental Council and the Center for Biological Diversity today filed notice of intent to sue the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over proposed water transfers from Yolo County, Calif., to the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. The transfer s would eliminate 3,500 acres of rice fields and wetlands, which provide habitat for the threatened giant garter snake.
“The giant garter snake is yet another species that has been devastated by the destruction of California’s wetland heritage,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of Butte Environmental Council. “Absent comprehensive surveys during the permitting process, the Fish and Wildlife Service is placing the species in peril, completely undermining the law signed 35 years ago by President Nixon.”
The giant garter snake (Thamnophis gigas) is one of North America’s largest native snakes, reaching up to 64 inches in length. The species is endemic to the Central Valley and originally inhabited natural wetlands. Loss of natural habitat has forced the giant garter snake to rely heavily on rice fields and managed marsh areas for survival, using agricultural wetlands and other waterways such as irrigation and drainage canals, sloughs, ponds, small lakes, and low gradient streams, as well as adjacent uplands. The snake’s range has been severely limited and it now occurs mainly in the Sacramento Valley with some isolated populations in the San Joaquin Valley. It was state-listed as threatened in 1971 and was listed as a federally threatened species in 1993.
“Federal agencies have illegally approved water transfers that will eliminate critical wetlands habitat for California’s largest native snake, without properly evaluating the impacts on endangered species, requiring adequate surveys, or limiting the allowable take of these rare snakes,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “ Mitigation measures need to be in place and suitable habitat must be created elsewhere to preserve the species if large-scale changes are to occur in rice farming.”
The Bureau is relying on a flawed and illegal Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve a proposed transfer of 22,552 acre-feet of Central Valley Project water from the 17,000-acre Conway Ranch in eastern Yolo County to the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. The water transfers will result in 1,000 acres previously used to grow rice being left fallow, and the replacement of 2,500 acres of rice crops with safflower, eliminating 3,500 acres of habitat for the giant garter snake.
Through a formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act regarding the water transfers, the Service concluded that the project is likely to result in incidental “takings” – killing or harming – of the giant garter snake. There are five published state records of the giant garter snake occurring within the project area and another 28 records within eight miles of the project. A recent survey found 51 giant garter snakes in the project vicinity or within the actual project area.
The Service’s Biological Opinion and the Bureau’s approval of the water transfers both violate Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The Service was required to formulate an Incidental Take Statement specifying the amount of take authorized before consultation must be reinitiated, assessing the impact of the incidental taking on the species, and including reasonable and prudent measures necessary or appropriate to minimize impacts. The Service failed to provide a specific take number, in violation of the Act, claiming in the Biological Opinion that a number cannot be calculated because surveys for garter snakes have not been conducted within the project area. The Service falsely asserted that surveys cannot be conducted, although data on snake occurrences are available and more complete surveys could be undertaken in the project area.
The Biological Opinion states that acceptable take will be exceeded only if more than 3,500 acres of garter snake habitat are destroyed or converted to non-wetland crops, meaning the proposed project will, by its own terms, not exceed the arbitrary take level established. The provided level of take is inadequate to meet Endangered Species Act standards, and the Service’s failure to provide a reasonable take limit makes it impossible to determine when an unacceptable level of take of garter snakes would occur because of the project.
Giant garter snakes forage for prey in shallow rice-field waters, use rice plants and berms for shelter and basking, and shallow warm water for birthing. Rice fields also provide for winter hibernation within their associated canals and banks. Fallowing and converting wetland crops will reduce the amount and availability of food for garter snakes and eliminate dense cover needed for avoiding predators.
Giant garter snakes feed primarily on small fishes, tadpoles, and frogs and specialize in ambushing prey underwater, making aquatic habitat essential to their survival. Threats to the giant garter snake include habitat loss and fragmentation; flood-control activities; changes in agricultural and land-management practices, such as conversion of rice fields; predation from introduced species; parasites; and water pollution.
For more information: www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/reptiles/giant_garter_snake/index.html
The Butte Environmental Council is a public benefit corporation representing 850 members who seek to protect the land, air, and water of the Sacramento Valley ecoregion.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.