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Winemakers, businesspeople at odds with wildlife officials over California tiger salamander protection

March 5, 2010 |  9:34 pm

California tiger salamander

State wildlife officials Wednesday ruled that the California tiger salamander deserves protection as a threatened species, subjecting landowners to more scrutiny if they want to build or farm in the amphibian's habitat.

The California Fish and Game Commission made the decision after finding roughly 400,000 acres of the amphibian's habitat are threatened by future development and the expansion of farming. The tiger salamander lives in nearly half the state's counties, in a region that stretches from Yolo County north of Sacramento to Santa Barbara County.

"We have learned over the years, at our peril, that remoteness is no guarantee of conservation," Commissioner Michael Sutton said. "What is remote today may well be suburban sprawl tomorrow."

The 3-2 vote came over the objections of the wine industry, business groups and homebuilders, which complained scientists were unable to show accurate population counts for the salamander and had exaggerated how much rural land might be developed in the future.

"This recommendation relies principally on anticipated loss of habitat," Tim Schmelzer, who oversees regulatory affairs at the Wine Institute, told the commission. "That projected loss is considerably overstated."

For example, similar federal protections and local city and county plans that guide future development were not consulted, Schmelzer said.

The tiger salamander breeds in seasonal pools and ponds but spends most of its 10-year life underground primarily in the Central Valley. It was listed as a federally protected species in 2004 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The state commission, which met in Ontario, east of Los Angeles, had twice previously denied listing the salamander and was sued in 2004 by the Center for Biological Diversity. A state appellate court ordered the Department of Fish and Game to reconsider the issue.

"I think we are beholden to the law, beholden to the biology and I think we have no choice," said Commissioner Richard Rogers.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: A California tiger salamander at Los Vaqueros Watershed near Brentwood, Calif., in 2001. Credit: Michael G. van Hattem / Associated Press

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