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Center for Biological Diversity:
California tiger salamander
The Press Democrat, August 30, 2011

Smaller salamander protection zone unveiled for Sonoma County
By Brett Wilkison

Federal officials Tuesday released what they hope will be a final ruling on the area they would oversee in the heart of Sonoma County to protect the endangered California tiger salamander.

The latest plan may wind up in court, however, as part of an ongoing fight over a proposed tribal casino in Rohnert Park. The casino site has been excluded from the salamander protection zone.

Another lawsuit would extend what is now a six-year back-and-forth battle over salamander protections spanning two presidential administrations and featuring advocates of stronger endangered species safeguards on one side and those concerned about the economic effect of heavy handed land-use restrictions on the other.

The latest so-called “critical habitat” ruling seeks to end that fracas by striking a balance between environmental and economic concerns, federal wildlife officials said. It is tot ake effect in 30 days.

At 47,383 acres, the new salamander zone is 8,417 acres smaller than a proposal put forward in June and 27,000 acres smaller than the largest plan, which was proposed in 2005 and put forward again in 2009.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees salamander protection, said they settled on the smaller figure after taking out land already developed or isolated from other habitat, or land not seen as essential to the recovery of the rare species.

The new zone occupies a swath of land stretching from the northwestern outskirts of Windsor to Pepper Road just north of Petaluma, and from the main waterway of the Laguna de Santa Rosa in the west to Petaluma Hill Road in the east.

The zone includes the Roblar Road area west of Cotati and developer John Barella's proposed rock quarry. County officials said previously that the quarry's inclusion “would not make much difference” to the project.

Generally, a critical habitat designation triggers an additional layer of review and habitat safeguards for projects requiring federal approval.

The plan has earned the backing of the Center for Biological Diversity, the national environmental group that sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 after the Bush administration reversed course and proposed to designate no habitat for the salamander.

Noah Greenwald, the group's endangered species director, said federal authorities had a “reasonable basis” for making the latest reductions to the habitat zone.

But opponents of a casino proposed in Rohnert Park by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are unhappy about one of those changes. The new plan exempts 252-acres owned by the tribe and eyed in part for the casino off Wilfred Avenue.

Federal officials defended the exemption on two grounds, saying the tribe's management plan for salamanders was sufficient without the habitat designation and that the benefits of excluding the land outweighed the benefits including it, a catchall determination allowed under the Endangered Species Act.

Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who founded the Stop the Casino 101 group, called the move “inconsistent and flawed.”

He vowed that both the tribe's salamander plan and the decision to exempt its land from critical habitat would be part of a lawsuit the group is planning against the casino's environmental studies.

“This is no big shock to us,” Worthington said.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton Rancheria, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Copyright © 2011 PressDemocrat.com

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton