BEC wins critical-habitat settlement

It’s enough to make a developer cry. Meadowfoam and fairy shrimp, those pesky local endangered species whose fragile existence has altered plans to build churches, houses, schools and highways in Butte County, are about to gain even more habitat protection.

On July 23, the U.S. District Court in Sacramento approved a settlement between the Butte Environmental Council and the U.S. Department of the Interior that instructs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to propose establishing critical habitat for those and 13 other endangered and threatened species in California and Oregon.

“This settlement is an important step toward protecting the remaining wild vernal-pool habitat in California,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. “We are delighted that we could work cooperatively with the [Fish and Wildlife] Service to enhance the preservation of these species in their beautiful native wetlands for future generations.”

The FWS will propose critical-habitat designations for four species of fairy shrimp and 11 listed vernal-pool plants, including Butte County meadowfoam. The fairy shrimp and the meadowfoam have caused delays in a number of projects in Butte County east of Chico, including construction of a church, housing tracts and most recently a new high school. The meadowfoam has also been blamed for holding up and altering the widening of Highway 149, which links Highways 99 and 70.

Jim Mann, executive director of the North Valley Building Industry Association, was less than pleased with news of the settlement. He represents Bruce Road Associates, which for the past four years has tried to develop residential housing and gain the needed permits so it can sell property to the Chico Unified School District to build a new high school. With the existence of vernal pools on the property near East 20th Street and Bruce Road and the sheer size of the combined projects, the builders have been unable to gain federal permits to move forward.

“There are already hurdles we have to go over to get environmental permits,” Mann said. “This just potentially adds new hurdles.”

Mann said he was unaware of the settlement until contacted by this paper.

“Nobody told us,” he said. “The way this usually works is I’ll probably get a letter in the mail sometime next week.”

Vernal pools are wetlands that fill during fall and winter rains, providing habitat for plants and animals. The pools once ran through most of California’s Central Valley and Southern California coastal areas. Biologists estimate that only about 10 percent still exists in the state.

Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is a specific geographic area that is considered essential for the preservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations. While the designation of critical habitat does not set up a preserve or refuge, property owners must consult with the FSW before taking any action that might affect the habitat.