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Saving Salamanders May Mean Restricting Vineyards

California commission passes new protections for the tiger salamander

Lynn Alley
Posted: April 9, 2010

In a move likely to affect vineyard development in Sonoma, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, the California Fish and Game Commission voted last month to list the California tiger salamander as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. The commission argued that although the salamander is already protected by federal endangered status in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, the existing federal regulations are inadequate to ensure its survival. The new ruling extends protection to several other counties where salamanders are found.

What does this mean to California grapegrowers? It means development, including new plantings, could be limited. "If you want to change land use, you've got to prove there is no tiger salamander on the land," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "You have expensive studies and permits to be done and potential mitigation. You are limited as to what you can do with your land." Under current federal protections, a grower risks a potential $50,000 fine and a year in jail for endangering a tiger salamander through plowing or planting.

At the state commission hearing, Tim Schmelzer, who handles regulatory issues for the Wine Institute, spoke on behalf of a coalition of wine and building industry groups, arguing that the state has no conclusive evidence that the salamander's numbers are critical and its habitat in danger of total loss.

The salamander spends much of its life underground, living in burrows, but comes up to breed in the ponds and pools that once abounded in California's Central Valley. Today, six distinct populations of tiger salamanders remain in California, but two populations in particular, located in Sonoma's Santa Rosa Plain and Santa Barbara County, are especially threatened and were listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2004.

The salamander has been living in what is now California for millions of years, but much of its habitat has disappeared in just a few short decades, mostly due to urbanization and agricultural development. An estimated 75 percent of its habitat is threatened.

Ironically, Russian River Valley growers have been unintentionally creating salamander habitats on their properties. Recent drought conditions have led growers to dig rain collection ponds on their land in order to avoid pumping water from the Russian River for frost protection and in so doing, damage salmon populations. Tiger salamanders have moved onto these properties in search of new breeding grounds in the ponds. Growers seeking to do the right thing by the salmon are now faced with salamander protections that may limit their control over their lands.

The California Department of Fish and Game is expected to officially add the salamander to its list of endangered species and to define the regulations that will govern the protection some time this month.

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