Judge rules fish and game slipped up by removing endangered salamander

January 24, 2007 11:00 pm

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

The California Department of Fish and Game illegally removed a Klamath River salamander from the state's endangered species act, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month.

Environmental groups sued the state department last year after learning that officials had taken away protection for the scott bar salamander, a subspecies of the threatened Siskiyou Mountains salamander.

The department had listed the Siskiyou Mountains salamander in 1971. Over the past couple of years, scientific findings have categorized the scott bar salamander as its own species.

"That didn't mean that the thing didn't warrant protection," said Michael Graf, an El Cerrito attorney on the case filed by the Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Center for Biological Diversity.

Such protection limits logging of old growth forests, for instance, that the salamander seeks.

The Siskiyou Mountains and scott bar salamanders look and act a lot alike. Both live on forested, rocky slopes, where moist, humid air can seep through their skin. Chocolate-brown colored with white flecks, both bear stripes on their backs. Their short legs have five toes on the back feet and four on the front.

While the Siskiyou Mountains salamander ranges through southern Oregon and Northern California, the scott bar salamander lives only where the Klamath and Scott rivers meet in Siskiyou County.

The new species finding prompted the state department of Fish and Game to take the scott bar salamander from its place on the list under the Siskiyou Mountains species.

But the department must follow procedures that call for species review, public notice, time for public comment and a final decision from the California Fish and Game Commission, Judge Peter Busch ruled after hearing the case this month.

The case sets protocol for future findings, as research techniques and technology improve to better detail and define species, Graf said. If such findings could alter endangered species act listings, those possible changes must follow the same listing or delisting procedures.

"You can't deprive an animal of protection that it once enjoyed under the Endangered Species Act without the formal process," Graf said of the department, noting a lack of public notice. "It's pretty lousy as a policy matter that that's the approach they're taking."

The full process for endangered species act listing and delisting actions includes reviewing scientific data and public opinions.

"That procedure ensures that the science is considered fully," said Kevin Bundy, an attorney with San Francisco-based Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, who also represented the environmental groups. "That procedure is pretty important."

The salamander has gotten federal court attention, lately, as well.

In a separate case, Judge William Alsup in U.S. District Courty in San Francisco last week ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately review a petition from the environmental groups seeking federal protection for the salamanders.

"We're delighted that the Siskiyou and newly discovered scott bar salamanders, which are threatened by extensive logging, will finally be considered for the protection they deserve," said Noah Greenwald, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Scott bar salamander

•About 2.5 inches long

•Lives along rocky slopes in old growth forests and open areas where the Klamath and Scott rivers meet in Siskiyou County

•Brown skin with white flecks and a stripe along its back

•Has five toes on its two back feet and four toes on its front feet

•Eats small invertebrates

Siskiyou Mountains salamander

•Reach 4-6 inches

•Lives along rocky slopes in old growth forests and open areas through Northern California and southern Oregon

•Brown skin with white flecks and a stripe along its back

•Has five toes on its two back feet and four toes on its front feet

•Eats small invertebrates

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and CaliforniaHerps.com