Sonoma County awaits clarity on proposed changes to Endangered Species Act
The Trump administration is seeking to alter key provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a 45-year-old federal law that has shaped growth in Sonoma County during repeated battles between builders attempting to develop land and environmentalists seeking to protect rare plants and animals.
Federal officials contend the changes to the act - which protects local species like the coho salmon and the California tiger salamander - will streamline and improve it. Local environmentalists have called them a “coordinated attack” on science that could push fragile species into extinction.
The act, passed in 1973 during the Nixon presidency with strong bipartisan support, protects critically imperiled species and their habitats. In Sonoma County, development conflicts have arisen over those species, sometimes requiring costly mitigation measures for projects to advance. But the law has also been a salvation for wildlife on the North Coast, like the gray whale, the bald eagle and osprey, said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
A major change would eliminate language instructing officials to ignore economic impacts when determining how wildlife should be protected.
Other reforms include changing limits on the designation of critical habitat - areas with biological or physical features necessary for the conservation of a species. It also seeks to end to the automatic regulatory process that gives threatened plants and animals the same protection as those listed as endangered, and streamlines consultation between agencies when actions from the federal government could jeopardize a species.
Changes proposed July 19 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service wouldn't be retroactive. There will be a 60-day comment period before they are considered for finalization by the two agencies.
Now, the act defines a threatened species as one that is on the brink of being severely impacted throughout its natural habitat within the “foreseeable future.” But, the term “foreseeable future” has been open to interpretation. The proposed changes create a definition for it.
The definition would make it clear that the “foreseeable future” would extend only as far as the agencies can “reasonably determine” that future threats and the species' response to those threats are “probable.” Critics say that makes it more difficult to give species protection, while the agencies contend the changes are meant to provide clarity.
Tennis Wick, who leads Sonoma County's planning department, said it was too soon for him to speculate on the implications of the proposed changes here, suggesting that doing so would “waste taxpayers' time.”
He pointed to strong protections from California's own endangered species and environmental quality laws as well as local rules that prevent potential changes from having a significant impact in Sonoma County.
“I would say everyone keep your powder dry. In doing this for almost 40 years, almost every conservative administration tries to roll back the Endangered Species Act. They run into congressional opposition and litigation that tends to mute or completely frustrate the attempt,” Wick said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service database shows 48 endangered and threatened plant and animal species known or believed to exist in the county. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has jurisdiction over another 13 marine species, a spokesman said. Only two species of turtles overlap on both lists.
In Sonoma County, critical habitat has been designated for seven animal and plant species, covering 69,283 acres, plus 785 linear miles of watershed for chinook salmon and steelhead trout, according to data from the county's permit department.
The largest share of that designated habitat is for California tiger salamanders, which inhabit the Santa Rosa Plain, a narrow band of land from Cotati to Windsor, with a concentration between southwest Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park.
A nonbinding 2016 federal plan for preserving the amphibian and three rare wildflower species called for the purchase of 15,000 acres of land in the Santa Rosa Plain for an estimated $385 million over the next 50 years.
Other species don't have critical habitat designated in Sonoma County for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that designating such an area wasn't considered to be warranted at the time of listing, a county spokeswoman said.
Regulations triggered by the act forced the Sonoma County Water Agency in 2008 to launch a project that will cost the agency an estimated $100 million to improve waterways that are home to three endangered and threatened fish. Requirements include habitat restoration over six miles of Dry Creek, where boulders and tree trunks have been installed to create pools to help young fish survive. An improved screen and ladder have also been installed near the agency's pumping station in Forestville.