A coalition of conservation groups led by Butte Environmental Council (BEC) filed a lawsuit Dec. 13 against the U.S. Department of the Interior for failing to adequately designate critical habitat for 15 endangered species of vernal-pool plants and freshwater shrimp in California and Southern Oregon.
“We had no choice [but to sue],” said Barbara Vlamis, BEC’s executive director. “It’s frustrating that instead of doing a competent job, they keep trying to find ways to circumvent the law.”
The suit, which also names Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is the latest in a series that began in 2000 when BEC sued to force the USFWS to designate critical habitat as required by an earlier court order.
Rare plants flourish in vernal pools, and the plants and crustaceans are eaten by migratory waterfowl.
USFWS biologists hosted public hearings in Chico and other locales and in 2002 recommended the protection of 1.7 million acres, including 69,000 acres in Butte, which is home to Butte County meadowfoam and several species of endangered crustaceans.
After that, things began to move backward. In August 2003, the USFWS issued a final critical habitat rule, but rather than protect the species, the Bush administration came up with an economic analysis that said protecting the fairy shrimp would cost counties hundreds of millions of dollars in “lost development opportunities.” And, since a loophole in environmental laws allows the U.S. secretary of the interior to override biological findings in favor of economic concerns, that’s what happened. The rule eliminated six counties, including Butte, from protection.
The environmental groups sued again, so the administration undertook a more detailed economic analysis. When that one came back, in June 2005, the price tag for the designation, combined with other conservation actions required by the Endangered Species Act, was nearly $1 billion over 20 years. Butte County’s potential losses were put at $154 million.
The coalition that filed the suit has pointed out that even if those figures are correct, they amount to only .17 percent of Butte County’s $7.36 billion annual economic output.
“It’s nothing; it’s not even 1 percent,” Vlamis said, adding that the study doesn’t mention the economic benefits—from tourism to ranching—that come with preserving the habitat.
Two months after the second analysis, the Department of the Interior designated 858,846 acres of critical habitat, leaving out nearly 900,000 acres the USFWS has originally proposed in 2002.
Two additional groups have joined BEC, the California Native Plant Society and Defenders of Wildlife as plaintiffs in the suit. Newly on board are the San Joaquin Raptor and Wildlife Rescue Center and the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.
Jim Nickles, spokesperson for the USFWS’s Sacramento field office, passed along an official comment. “Far more useful than another expensive lawyers’ fight over largely ineffective critical habitat is a real effort to restore the 15 vernal pool species through cooperative conservation,” the service said. “By the end of January, the service will issue and implement a comprehensive, vigorous Recovery Plan for vernal pool species.
The USFWS has contended that designating the habitat doesn’t afford species any additional protection, because it only comes into play when a development project involves the federal government.
“You would wonder why they bothered to cut the habitat if it doesn’t mean anything.” Vlamis said.