Court agreement solidifies shrimp plan

Score one for the fairy shrimp.

Attorneys for the Butte Environmental Council, which at one point had even sought a criminal contempt-of-court charge against the lagging U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked out an agreement that holds the agency to new deadlines for designating 1.7 million acres of critical habitat for endangered wetlands species.

In a consent decree signed Dec. 5 by Eastern District Court Judge William B. Shubb, the parties not only agreed that the USFWS would continue to work on the plan for the vernal-pools species, but would also complete a species recovery plan, put out status reports and consider listing another species as endangered—the mid-valley fairy shrimp. If the attorneys for BEC and the USFWS hadn’t been able to hammer out a deal, the judge’s order of a February 2003 deadline would have been enforced.

Cay Goude, an assistant field supervisor with the USFWS, said the settlement gives the agency a more “reasonable amount” of time—until July 15, 2003—to get the plan together.

“I think the environmental groups have a better understanding of the service’s difficulty [considering] the workload,” Goude said. “I’m hoping that it resulted in a dialogue, at least with the Butte Environmental Council.” She added that the USFWS was always committed to following through with the court-ordered plan, which itself arose from a different BEC lawsuit.

BEC sued the agency in April 2000 because, six years after four fairy shrimp species were listed, the USFWS had yet to follow through with the required designation of critical habitat.

BEC Executive Director Barbara Vlamis said she’s seen a new, encouraging attitude by the USFWS. “It feels like there’s been a real shift in intent and devotion of resources. They didn’t prioritize the allocation of resources, and now they’re taking it seriously.”

The public still has until Dec. 23 to comment on the draft economic analysis and proposed rule, which now includes 11 other species, such as Butte County meadowfoam.

Also this week, the environmental community logged a win as the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked, resulting in the upholding of the Clean Water Act. Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, who in 1993 plowed through wetlands without pollution permits, claimed the land use counted as “farming” because he was putting in vineyards. The justices announced Dec. 16 that they were divided 4-4 and the status quo would stand. Lower courts had also ruled against Tsakopoulos.

"It confirms the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act over isolated wetlands," Vlamis said. If Tsakopoulos had won—a likelihood if Justice Anthony Kennedy hadn’t had to sit it out because he knew the developer—it would have been a threat to the 5 percent of California’s wetlands that have survived to this day, she said.