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For Immediate Release, August 18, 2009

Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

74,000 Acres of Critical Habitat Proposed for Sonoma County Population of California Tiger Salamander

SAN FRANCISCO In response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed re-designating 74,223 acres of the Santa Rosa Plain, a biodiversity hotspot in Sonoma County, as critical habitat for the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander, and opened a 60-day public comment period. In 2005, the Bush administration illegally reduced the proposed critical habitat acreage for this critically endangered species from 74,000 to zero.

“Protection of vanishing vernal pools and California tiger salamander habitat in Sonoma County is desperately needed to help this imperiled amphibian survive and recover,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Santa Rosa Plain is a critically important ecosystem that is being subjected to a full-throttle assault by developers.”

The Center brought the lawsuit in 2008 as part of a larger campaign to overturn politically tainted decisions by the Bush administration concerning endangered species. To date, the Center has challenged decisions denying listing or providing inadequate critical habitat for 46 species in 28 states, affecting as much as 8 million acres of critical habitat. Many of the illegal decisions, including the decision over critical habitat for the tiger salamander, were engineered by former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald, who resigned in disgrace following a scathing investigation by the inspector general of misconduct at the Department of the Interior.

In the case of the salamander, Bush administration appointees, including MacDonald, overruled agency scientists, who originally proposed 74,000 acres for protection, and slashed the critical habitat to zero acres. To justify elimination of critical habitat, the administration argued that only 17,000 acres of occupied habitat should be considered “critical” and did not include in the proposal any unoccupied salamander habitat, despite the fact that the salamander remained in only seven viable breeding sites. The agency then illegally excluded this entire habitat based on an inadequate “Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy,” a plan backed by developers and local governments that would have allowed continued development in important salamander habitats. Cities in the Santa Rosa Plain subsequently refused to adopt or fund the now-failed Strategy.

“The California tiger salamander needs more than vague promises of future conservation to survive,” said Miller.

The tiger salamander once occupied the entirety of the Santa Rosa Plain, but today it is found in only seven locations, where it faces severe threats from urban sprawl, roads, and pesticides. In 2001 the Center and Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati filed an emergency listing petition under the federal Endangered Species Act for the Sonoma County population of the salamander. After the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to the petition, the Center filed suit, and in 2002, the Service listed the Sonoma population as endangered on an emergency basis, making the designation permanent in 2003. In 2004 the Service arbitrarily and illegally changed the status of the Sonoma population from endangered to threatened. The Center filed suit challenging the downlisting in 2005 and the Service restored endangered status.

In 2000, the distinct Santa Barbara population of the California tiger salamander was listed as an endangered species and in 2004 the central California population was listed as threatened. It has taken five lawsuits so far to get limited federal protections for the three imperiled tiger salamander populations. After a petition and a lawsuit by the Center, rejection of an appeal by the California Fish and Game Commission from the state appeals court, and a court order, the tiger salamander was declared a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act in February of 2009.

“The Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander is on the brink of extinction and full protection of all suitable habitats is its only chance for survival,” said Miller. “The few remaining tiger salamander populations in Sonoma are fragmented, isolated, and completely hemmed in by development and roads.”

The Center kicked off a Cleaning up the Bush Legacy Campaign in 2007, seeking to reinstate protections for 60 imperiled species and more than 8 million acres of habitat wrongly denied federal protection because of political interference. The campaign has already met with significant success: In response to Center lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to redo critical habitat designations for 19 species and reconsidered listing the rare, highly imperiled Mexican garter snake as an endangered.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places.

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