Vernal-pool plan underway

After lagging for more than a year and one-half, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come up with a plan to protect 1.7 million acres of critical habitat for vernal pools, which are host to endangered fairy shrimp and flowering plants.

The FWS released its proposal on Sept. 24, coincidentally the day after agency representatives were in court in Sacramento, answering to a federal judge as to why they missed the court-ordered deadline yet again.

The Butte Environmental Council had sued the service and won in February 2001, forcing it to create a plan to set aside vernal-pool habitat, most of which has been swallowed up by development over the years. The plan was supposed to be ready in July 2001.

“It turned out to be a much more complicated and difficult job than we thought it would be,” said Jim Nickles, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We wanted to be as careful as we could in getting the boundaries defined.” The protected areas as proposed stretch from parts of Oregon south through California and are sure to rile building and farming interests, who feel perpetually stymied by the Endangered Species Act.

Barbara Vlamis, BEC’s executive director, said she couldn’t elaborate on the contempt order sought Monday against FWS officials because a settlement is in the works.

A series of public workshops will be held where citizens can comment on the plan. In Chico, it will be Oct. 3 at the Elks’ Lodge on Manzanita Avenue from 1-3 p.m. to 6-8 p.m.

Nickles said the service is committed to protecting the species; it just takes time. “We would like to be able to do critical habitat in a timely way for all of our species,” he said. “They are an important native ecosystem that at one time was widespread.”

Vlamis, however, said that until the court order came down in February 2001, “they were not going to move forward with critical habitat at all.”

Under the court order, the FWS is supposed to designate critical habitat for 11 plants and four crustaceans. That includes 69,000 acres in Butte County, protecting Butte County meadowfoam, fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp in the Chico area. Besides being ecosystems in their own right, the vernal pools are an important part of the food chain and a frequent resting spot for waterfowl and other species.

"Ninety-five percent of California’s natural wetlands have been destroyed," said Vlamis, who has often contemplated on the value of even the tiniest of species. "The best expression of humanity is when it protects and nurtures the most vulnerable among us: our children, our elderly and the species that count on our voices for their very existence."