Butte booted out of critical habitat

Attention fairy shrimp and meadowfoam: If you thought you were safe, think again. Last-minute politics has resulted in Butte County being excluded from the designation of critical habitat for 15 endangered vernal pool species.

“It caught everyone by surprise, including me,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. “This is so clearly political. We will appeal at the earliest possible date.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Aug. 6 that it has designated 740,000 acres in California and Oregon as critical habitat for the species, but Butte County and four other counties are excluded. A revision to the agency’s economic analysis said that listing the species could cost Butte, Madera, Merced, Sacramento and Solano counties $1.3 billion over 20 years because development projects would cost more. Somewhere between the California offices and Washington, D.C., the plan had done a 180.

“The final call on it is actually made by the Interior Department,” said Jim Nickles, public affairs officer for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, adding that he can’t discuss when the thinking started to shift.

The monetary analysis in the midst of an economic downturn paved the way for the decision that “the economic impacts outweighed the benefits to the species,” Nickles said. He agreed that the move is unprecedented. “I’m not sure we’ve ever excluded entire counties,” he said.

Ironically, it was Chico’s own Butte Environmental Council that in 2000 sued the USFWS for failing to designate habitat as required by law. The settlement agreement set a timeline, and the service was plugging away on the plan, even as development and other land interests lobbied behind the scenes.

The decision is so literally last-minute that the exclusion was not even noted in the 600-page document initially delivered to the Federal Register after the July 15 deadline.

So, are the local USFWS folks upset that they were apparently trumped by the Bush administration? Nickles wouldn’t say. Vlamis speculated, “I can’t imagine that they’re not. These are reputable scientists who did their best to put together a fair rule.”

“It basically extracts one whole species,” Vlamis said, referring to the fact that Butte County Meadowfoam only exists in Butte County and now Butte is not covered by the designation.

Land where vernal pool species had once thrived has been swallowed up by development over the years to the point where only 10 percent of the original habitat in California remains. In Butte County alone, 69,000 acres out of 1.7 million were set to be designated by the USFWS.

When some farmers worried at public workshops last year that the designation could threaten private property rights, USFWS officials have assured them that the designation doesn’t change anything unless the landowners want to sell out and convert to urban uses, in which case a wetlands fill permit would be required.

"These species will still have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act," Nickles said. "There’s still a lot of protection in place."