The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to develop a recovery plan for the endangered California tiger salamander in Sonoma County by June of 2016.

The decision announced Friday was the result of a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to force the federal agency to come up with a recovery plan for the stocky, spotted amphibians, which have been on the endangered list since 2002.

The agency also agreed to write recovery plans for separate populations of the salamanders in Santa Barbara and the Central Coast by 2017.

A recovery plan is "a detailed document that lays out all the things that scientists think need to get done to get the species off the list," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to protect imperiled populations and help them recover. The agency's guidelines call for recovery plans within 2? years for a species being listed, Adkins Giese said.

The populations of salamanders in Santa Barbara, Sonoma and the Central Coast were listed as endangered in 2000, 2002, and 2004 respectively.

Since then, the agency had made few strides toward establishing recovery plans, partly because of political battles over the establishment of critical habitat, Adkins Giese said.

"This is the type of situation where litigation really is needed, where the agency really needed this pressure to get it back together," she said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does its best to prioritize the recovery plans for endangered and threatened species with limited dollars, said Michael Woodbridge, spokesman for the agency in Sacramento.

"We don't have unlimited resources to get all these recovery plans done for all these species," Woodbridge said.

Fourteen percent of the 221 species listed as endangered have no recovery plan, Adkins Giese said.

The Sonoma population is the most at risk of the three, with its breeding areas under significant development pressure, Adkins Giese said.

Last year the agency established 47,383 acres as "critical habitat" for the salamander, a zone 27,000 acres smaller than a plan proposed in 2005 and 2009.

The zone occupies a swath of low-lying land stretching from the northwestern outskirts of Windsor to Pepper Road just north of Petaluma, and from the main waterway of the Laguna de Santa Rosa in the west to Petaluma Hill Road in the east.

A critical habitat designation triggers an additional layer of review and habitat safeguards for projects requiring federal approval.

The recovery plan won't change those triggers or impose additional restrictions on property owners, Adkins Giese said.

Instead it will likely focus on the kind of scientific research and habitat restoration necessary to bring the species back from the brink.

Adkins Giese said landowners with property designated critical habitat should embrace the recovery plan process because it's "a road map for how to get that animal actually off the endangered species list."

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)