Yet Again, Feds Choose Development Over Species Protection

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced last week that it is cutting the amount of land set aside for California’s threatened tiger salamander by nearly half, citing as unacceptable the expense of keeping the 184,000 acres in question off limits to development. The disputed land—which has been designated as critical habitat for the eight-inch-long yellow and black amphibian—is in some of the country’s fastest-growing areas in California’s Central Valley, as well as east of San Francisco.

California"s threatened tiger salamander© CA Acad. of Sciences/USFWS

Despite taking out such a large chunk of the critical habitat area first proposed last year to help save the salamander, the final ruling by the agency still calls for setting aside some 199,000 acres in 19 California counties. Environmentalists consider such action critical to protecting California’s dwindling populations of native flora and fauna. "The plight of California’s natural environment is mirrored by the plight of the salamander," says the Center for Biological Diversity’s Peter Galvin. "As the salamander loses its habitat, so too does California lose its precious oak woodlands, grasslands and vernal pools."

Meanwhile, developers continue their opposition to the remaining set-aside. "Reserving acreage as critical habitat just makes it more daunting to build housing that’s affordable," says Joseph Perkins of the Home Builders Association of Northern California. "Setting aside habitat is just the least-efficient way to protect species."

This latest decision by the federal government does not surprise environmentalists, who are bracing for an all-out assault on laws protecting endangered species. Congressional Republicans, White House insiders and conservative federal judges have all expressed interest in gutting the 30-year-old U.S. Endangered Species Act because they say it protects unimportant species at the expense of economic development.