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Protected species habitat

Click here to see where critical habitat exists in Sonoma County for federally endangered and threatened species.

Species' Critical Habitat in Sonoma County (acres)

Baker’s larkspur 797

California red-legged frog 7,942

California tiger salamander 47,417

Marbled murrelet 11,218

Northern spotted owl 360

Tidewater goby 177

Yellow larkspur 1,370

Chinook salmon and steelhead trout 785 linear miles

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.

Protected species habitat

Click here to see where critical habitat exists in Sonoma County for federally endangered and threatened species.

Species' Critical Habitat in Sonoma County (acres)

Baker’s larkspur 797

California red-legged frog 7,942

California tiger salamander 47,417

Marbled murrelet 11,218

Northern spotted owl 360

Tidewater goby 177

Yellow larkspur 1,370

Chinook salmon and steelhead trout 785 linear miles

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.

Those efforts came after of a decade of study to determine how the activities of the Water Agency and others impact salmon and steelhead in the Russian River watershed. A guiding document called a “biological opinion” was issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service as a result of the consultation process triggered by the Endangered Species Act.

That inter-agency consultation process is poised to change, though it’s not clear what that might mean locally, said David Manning, environmental resources manager for the Water Agency. Current protections for the fish are well in place, as are required mitigations, he said. What could change is future decisions and consultations with other agencies on issues such as operation and maintenance of the drinking water system that relies on dams and pumps, he said.

“The way the consultation is handled is at the heart of a lot of these changes,” he said. “We’re studying them to try to figure out exactly what it means for our work going forward. Efforts to streamline the way consultation is handled would certainly be a positive from our perspective.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an architect, pointed to the act’s role in projects like the $55 million runway expansion at the Sonoma County Airport. Mandatory credits purchased to set aside land elsewhere amounted to $20 million for the project, including $3 million for the tiger salamander and $13 million for Burke’s goldfields, a rare wetland flower. Fortunately for the county, federal grants covered 90 percent of the those mitigation costs.

Rabbitt said alterations to the act proposed by the Trump administration could potentially ease work like cleaning drainage ditches in preparation for the rainy season, which is now prohibited during some species’ breeding seasons, or allow for longer seasons of roadwork.

“It would mean a difference in some specific areas, but would it be a wholesale change? I’m not thinking so. There’s a point in the middle where we need to be, that’s reasonable and responsible without things going too far in one direction or the other,” Rabbitt said. “I suspect the reaction by this administration is too far in one direction and in a few years’ time, it could swing back again.”

Huffman called proposed changes a “step backward.” But, like other officials, he pointed to protections afforded by California’s own Endangered Species Act, which runs parallel to the federal legislation and provides a “critical backstop.” Changes could takes years to implement, he said.

“We can stop this. The main thing is to be very clear that it’s bad policy and we need to fight it and stop it,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a environmental watchdog group, called the proposal a “disaster for America’s most endangered wildlife.”

Among other concerns, he cited a change to how officials weigh the potential impacts of projects to areas designated as critical habitat. For example, a logging project or a housing development in a small part of critical habitat might move forward with more ease than under previous rules, since it’s not adversely impacting the entirety of a species’ critical habitat, he said.

“More of the natural world in Sonoma County might be lost because of these (proposed changes) and other weakening of protections,” he said.

But, farmers and ranchers often feel their land use is stymied by the act’s regulations. Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said her organization is open to re-evaluation of the act’s governance of agriculture.

“From a standpoint of farmers and the Farm Bureau, anything that would give us more of an opportunity to use our land for food production and that gives us a little more opportunity is something we’re really interested in,” she said.

Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, said his group hasn’t taken a stance on the new proposal, but he said believed “a thorough review” of Endangered Species Act was “long overdue.” Provisions of the act have inhibited development in areas where the “protection has gone overboard,” he said. He was unable to cite specific examples, but said the presence of the California tiger salamander has been a major deterrent to construction of schools and homes in areas west of Santa Rosa.

Woods stressed that he was not advocating for the law’s revocation. “It has in the eyes of the people that are related to the business and building community become a weapon as much as a tool being used to protect endangered species,” he said.

Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, said changes could lead to the “avoidable loss of species,” and the “destruction of important habitat” locally.

“What I’ve seen of the provisions is that they are opening up the way for industry,” she said. “They’re proposing to put economics over the health and safety of the environment and the community.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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