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Congressman seeks to block endangered species listing

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

U.S. Rep. John Carter displayed a salamander he said was pulled from a tiny creek running underneath the intersection of State Highway 45 and Ranch Road 620 in Williamson County and called it proof that four new species of local salamanders need not be put on the endangered species list to save them.


Carter invited reporters to a briefing Monday morning to announce he had filed a bill to block listing the Austin Blind, Salado, Jollyville Plateau and Georgetown salamanders as endangered or threatened species before 2014.


“The fact that we stand in a location with a healthy salamander population adjacent to a major highway intersection shows we are protecting our salamanders and that the salamanders are not threatened by reasonable economic development,” said Carter, a Republican who represents most of Williamson County and is one of the most conservative members of the Texas Congressional delegation. “Future plans to protect our salamander populations should be made with the research data currently being gathered on this issue, rather than through politically-motivated court orders that seek to impose regulatory restrictions not warranted by fact.”


A recent settlement to address the decade-long backlog of cases to be considered under the Endangered Species Act has put the salamanders on the fast track to be evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement calls for a recommendation on the salamanders by the end of the fiscal year with the implementation of the listing, if necessary, for next year.


Carter and Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance, who wants additional protections to conserve Barton Springs, do agree on one thing: They consider the other to be resorting to politics to get their way in a process that should be based on science. Bunch says the record is sufficient. Carter said the region needs more time to prove up its case against listing.


“My main point was, in reading this silly press release, they’re talking about the ‘best science,’ and the law requires the best science be used in the listing,” said Bunch. “They’re attempting to interrupt the best science and process with a political process, which is all about delaying the listing further.”


The politics of Travis and Williamson Counties typically clash, and nowhere is it going to be more apparent than when it comes to protecting the environment. Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, stood with Carter. He said he was confident that Williamson County had taken measures sufficient to protect the environment as development has expanded.


“For generations, our county and the leaders in our county have made good decisions with infrastructure and growth,” Gonzales said. “We’ve done a good job of dealing with the environment. We are truly environmentalists who take care of the land, and we’ve done a really good job of it.”


Gonzales noted that the small pool under the toll road was home to more than 100 salamanders and their larvae. Even with development, the county has left streams flowing and habitat preserved whenever possible, he said.


Williamson County has launched its own regional conservation habitat plan. The recently formed Texas Salamander Coalition launched a fund-raising effort to underwrite its own additional research of the local salamander population. The group appears convinced that new scientific evidence will stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the salamanders as endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2013.


“I would say that research isn’t going to tell us anything that we don’t already know that’s relevant to the listing,” Bunch said of the county efforts. “All of these species have very small ranges that are in the path of development so that they’re threatened by urban development, both from pollution and spills, as well as excessive groundwater pumping. Nothing the county or the cities or the state is doing is going to alleviate those threats.”


If the Save Our Springs Alliance is critical of what Williamson County is doing to protect native habitat, it’s because its members aren’t familiar with the efforts of Williamson County to balance ecology with development, Gonzales said.


“We’ve done a good job, a very good job, to take care of the environment up here,” Gonzales said. “We understand that’s a fine balance in a fast-growing area like Williamson County.”


Luke Metzger of Environment Texas was not impressed. He said Carter’s delay was simply done to stop what was a valid and reasonable process.


“Congressman Carter appears to be doing the bidding of big developers in attempting to block the independent scientific review of threats posed to endangered salamanders,” Metzger said. “If his interest is in good science, he should let the scientists at Fish and Wildlife do their jobs, not tie their hands in the midst of their research.”


All signs, from the environmentalists’ perspective, point to listing the salamanders. The region is growing rapidly, directly on top of the species. Local and state regulations to protect the species in their habitat are limited. Northern Travis County, in fact, lacks even a groundwater district to manage pumping in the area. And water quality ordinances are minimal, especially in Williamson County.


Listing will not stop development; it will simply make for more thoughtful consideration of habitat, Bunch said.


“The final listing will go forward with either a proposal to list the salamanders as endangered or threatened species or to make a decision that the science does not support the listing,” Bunch said. “They make the determination based on the threats of development.”


“Once the species is listed, if a developer can show their project won’t cause any harm, then they don’t have anything to worry about,” Bunch said. “If there’s some risk, or some limited amount of harm, they do have the obligation of going through a permitting process and provide reasonable mitigation.”


The goal, of course, would be to avoid the emergency listing of species, as was the case when H. Ross Perot made a rush on the habitat for the Golden-cheeked warbler and Black-capped vireo back in 1990. Significant damage was done to land at the intersection of FM 2222 and RR 620.

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