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The California tiger salamander is a cute little guy, as amphibians go. It’s a thickset, fairly large animal ranging six to eight inches with a short snout and eyes like black beads on the top of its head. Its skin is slick and black with yellow spots on its sides, tail, and back; its legs stick out from its body at wayward angles, like some sort of windup bath toy.

But you aren’t likely to see one unless you’re out on a rainy night in early winter, when salamanders emerge from their underground burrows for mating season. And even then you would have to be near a body of water, like a vernal pond, which is dry in the summer and wet in the winter, or somewhere in the path between the pond and the salamander’s tunnel a distance that can often span more than a mile. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species. The business community is up in arms about the possible effect this listing may have on future and proposed developments, while environmentalists claim that growth and economic impact always come second to the survival of a species. And even more troubling, some are saying that the salamander is being used as an excuse for antigrowth politics and that this issue is evidence that Sonoma County is becoming more of a target for new environmental regulations.

On July 16, the FWS granted emergency protection to the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander under the Endangered Species Act. The emergency listing came after the Berkeley based Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition and lawsuit against the FWS. As a result, the salamander has endangered status for 240 days while the FWS determines whether the creature warrants permanent protection. In most cases, emergency listings lead to permanent listings.

Until a decision on permanent listing is made, it is a crime to disturb or harm a tiger salamander, punishable by jail time and a fine. The emergency listing protects seven vernal ponds in Sonoma County, which are the only known breeding sites for the salamander.

The FWS has defined the salamander’s potential breeding sites as anywhere within the Santa Rosa Plain, which stretches from southwest Santa Rosa to Cotati. Any developments within that area must now go through the FWS. According to Jim Nickles, an FWS spokesperson, the critical habitats will be further defined assuming that the salamander is permanently listed.

Several specific sites near the former Santa Rosa Naval Air Station have already been identified. Two of these sites are already protected, but urban development has been proposed on or near three more of the known breeding sites, according to the FWS. It is unclear how these proposed developments will be influenced in the long run by the salamander. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t communicated what they’re going to do yet,” says Victor Gonzalez of Monahan Pacific Construction in San Rafael. “That’s what everyone is asking. As many as 40 or 50 projects could be affected.”

At least one local construction project will be delayed by the emergency listing: the South Sonoma Business Park in Cotati. 101, is owned by Monahan Pacific. The park would provide Sonoma County with 583,000 square feet of office space and 45 new townhouses.

From the very beginning, the business park has been opposed by some Cotati residents who have been notoriously reluctant to embrace growth. In 2000, when the South Sonoma Business Park was first proposed, a group called the Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati formed. The group was outspoken in its efforts to stop the development, speaking at city council meetings, filing appeals, and circulating petitions. The group felt that the small town of Cotati, with only about 7,000 residents, would be unable to sustain the estimated 2,500 jobs the park would bring into the town, causing housing, water, and traffic problems.

“The park is so out of proportion with the town of Cotati, we thought it would split the town in two,” says Jenny Blaker, a Cotati citizen and former member of the group. “But not only does the growth induce potential sprawl in Cotati, it would push into other towns and cause sprawl in the entire county.”

The Cotati City Council, which in 2001 had newly elected “business friendly” members, approved the project. The park has been estimated to bring in more than $1 million in tax revenue.

Seeing that the city council was unresponsive to their demands, the Citizens for a Sustainable Cotati contacted the Center for Biological Diversity for help in stopping the business park.

“They did get us involved, partially for the tiger salamander and partially to help stop this big,
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ugly, sprawling development,” says Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Every state agency unwisely approved this project, even though they knew the status of the salamander.”

But even though the California tiger salamander issue came up through an antigrowth battle, state and federal agencies alike have ignored the Sonoma County population of the salamander for some years now. In fact, environmentalists have been concerned about the salamander for nearly 10 years.

In 1992 UC Davis professor Bradley Shaffer petitioned the federal government for statewide protection of the salamander. In 1994 the salamander was given “warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing” status, which means that the salamander should be listed but the service hasn’t gotten around to it yet. In 2000 the salamander was emergency listed in Santa Barbara County and was later given permanent endangered status for that area.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition with the FWS for protection of the Sonoma County population. Upon receiving no response, the center filed a lawsuit in February accusing the FWS of ignoring their petition and of keeping the salamander in “warranted, but precluded purgatory,” explains Cummings.

Emergency listings are rare and are only given when a species is in serious jeopardy or their habitat risks irreparable damage. Aside from emergency listing for the California tiger salamander in Santa Barbara and Sonoma Counties, the only other emergency listings in recent memory were granted for the big horn sheep in the Sierra Nevada and the kangaroo rat in San Bernardino County.

The Sonoma County population received its own emergency listing because it is isolated from other salamanders, making it what the FWS calls a “distinct population segment.” Its closest brothers are separated by nearly 50 miles and are located in Contra Costa, Yolo, and Solano counties. Since there is no natural interchange among groups of salamanders, the Sonoma County population is genetically distinct from other groups.

Scientists say it’s nearly impossible to estimate the number of tiger salamanders in Sonoma County, partly because they hide underground for most of the year and partly because their numbers are dependent on the climate. However, known populations have decreased, according to research used in the petition to the FWS, which was gathered by Sonoma State University professor Phil Northern and research biologist Dave Cook.

“Several populations of the salamander known by local and amateur scientists have disappeared,” says Northern. “Though it’s virtually impossible to get exact numbers, scientists are able to tell that there are less and less of them as time goes on.”

Urbanization is one of the largest threats to the California tiger salamander. Ideally, habitats are made up of reserves of multiple breeding ponds surrounded by 1,000 acres or more, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. In Sonoma County, four known breeding sites were lost within the last two years due to urbanization, according to Cook. Scientists determine loss of habitat by tracking the salamander’s historical territory.

“To estimate whether the population is depleting, you have to look at the salamander’s historic habitat, most of which has been eliminated,” says Cook. “Historically, vernal pools have occurred in the Santa Rosa Plain, which stretches from Windsor all the way to Petaluma. Now their habitat has been restricted to one slim strip of land.”

Other factors have affected the lives of the Sonoma County population as well. Because they roam so much during the breeding season, the salamanders are endangered by traffic. For example, according to the FWS, between Nov. 21 and Dec. 5, 2001, 26 California tiger salamanders were found dead on Stony Point Road.

The salamanders also have low birth rates. They typically live four to six years before they breed, so it’s estimated that half of adults only breed once in their lifetimes, which can last up to 11 years but normally lasts closer to five or six years. If there is a drought, the salamanders may not breed at all.

Scientists believe the loss of habitat, high death rates, and low birth rates are enough to warrant looking into protecting the population. Environmentalists claim they have a moral responsibility to protect species from extinction.

“It’s an extremely arrogant and unwise step to remove any portion of this planet,” says Cummings. “Every species on this planet has its own worth and value.”

But some are saying that the science presented in the FWS petition is uneven at best. Because scientists were unable to estimate how many salamanders are in Sonoma County or by how much the population is decreasing, the FWS may be needlessly halting development by issuing an emergency listing, and, worse, they may be relying on what it called “junk science” or faulty data.
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