Feds put price tag on fairy shrimp

The federal government says fairy shrimp are costing California $1 billion, and they’re not worth it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using a draft economic analysis released June 27 to justify refusing to designate critical habitat for 15 endangered species of vernal-pool plants and freshwater shrimp, including land in Butte County.

The analysis found that, when combined with other conservation actions required by the Endangered Species Act, the critical-habitat designation would result in $992 million being lost during the next 20 years, with 97 percent of that figure due to “lost development opportunities.” In Butte County, the figure was put at $154 million.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the BEC, said it doesn’t surprise her that the USFWS would come up with a new analysis that overrides its earlier recommendation to designate 1.7 million acres statewide and in Southern Oregon as critical habitat. “To me, it is in keeping with the Bush administration,” she said. “It’s becoming predictable.”

Even when endangered species are threatened, the U.S. secretary of the interior can trump biological findings if he or she determines that the economic impact of protecting the creatures would be too great.

Now, the service wants to exclude the five counties of Butte, Sacramento, Solano, Merced and Madera from the ruling. A similar move in August 2003, when the USFWS failed to designate 1 million acres of critical habitat it had previously identified, resulted in a lawsuit from the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), Defenders of Wildlife and the California Native Plant Society.

Under court order to publish a final critical-habitat rule for the five counties by July 31, the USFWS went beyond the directive and hired a firm to re-examine all 36 counties with critical-habitat designations pending.

“They felt like they couldn’t look at those counties in isolation,” said Jim Nickles, spokesperson for the USFWS’s Sacramento field office. “This economic analysis is considered to be a little more refined. It’s broken down by census tract.”

Carol Witham, president of the board of directors for the California Native Plant Society, said that the $992 million the USFWS calculates will be lost because 1,618 houses won’t be built sounds like a lot, but it isn’t when compared to the service’s own estimate of 258,196 units that will be built. “That’s less than 1 percent of their projected economic growth for that area,” Witham said. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”

She blamed the development lobby for putting political pressure on the agency and negating biologists’ findings. “There are economic benefits to the use of this land as a habitat,” Witham said. “I think it’s incredibly egotistical of the human race to think that their issues can wipe out another species on this planet.”

By most counts, 87 percent of vernal-pool habitats have already been destroyed by development. Besides rare plants taking root in the pools, they serve as food sources for various migratory waterfowl.

At the same time the USFWS attaches high costs to designating critical habitat, it also contends that the designation does not offer species any additional protection. “It’s a thing on a map,” Nickles said, that only comes into play when a federal agency proposes a project overlapping the affected lands and then must consult with the USFWS. “For all the time, for all the controversy and for all the litigation, in terms of on-the-ground mitigation to protect the species, we don’t think it does all that much.

“There’s things that we’d rather be doing that have more benefit to the species than critical habitat,” he said.

The public has until July 20 to comment on the analysis, and the USFWS must have the final rule complete by July 30. The tight timeline sheds some light on the politics behind the decision, environmental agencies contend.

“It means to me that they already have a final rule written,” said Vlamis, who added that behind the scenes the Sacramento field office disagrees with its overseers’ decision. “I guess we’ll just have to be prepared to litigate.”