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Environmental Board supports federal effort to protect salamanders

Monday, September 10, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Environmental Board voiced its support for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s process that could see four area salamanders on the endangered species list within the year.


On Aug. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposed protecting the salamanders within Central Texas by listing the aquatic creatures as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, kicking off a 60-day comment period. After being candidates for listing for five to 10 years, a final decision on the four species — the Austin Blind, Jollyville Plateau, Georgetown and Salado salamander — is expected some time next summer.


At the Environmental Board last week, the discussion centered on the science at the heart of the listing, which opponents have questioned.


In a presentation on the Jollyville Plateau Salamander, Watershed Protection environmental scientist Nate Bendik refuted claims that a decline in the salamander population is a result of less rainfall in recent years. Rather, he attributed the decline to a degradation of the salamander’s habitat because of increased urbanization and the associated poorer water quality.


“If rainfall explains the decline in urban areas, why don’t we see a decline in rural areas?” asked Bendik, who produced data that showed a decrease in population for an area with greater impervious cover in contrast to an area with less though they shared similar hydrologic conditions.


Bendik explained that some of the discrepancies in the data, which showed a lack of impact on the Jollyville salamander population despite development, might be attributed to a “lag effect” which stalls development impact on populations about five to 10 years.


“This is not some subtle effect that we had to tease out of the data. It’s not something that’s going to be explained by (a) little more rainfall in the ’90s. This slaps you in the face,” said Bendik. “This is a real trend.”


“Sites that have been developed from the ‘70s through the ‘90s have 10 to a 100 times lower density. That is a lot,” said Bendik.


Bendik also unequivocally shot down a 2012 study by Michael Forstner, a biology professor at Texas State University, who argued that molecular data do not support distinctions in three of the recognized salamander species. Bendik explained that the study, which was commissioned by the Texas Salamander Coalition, which is fighting the proposed endangered species designation, was not peer reviewed, and disagreed with literature that was peer reviewed. Additionally, the 2012 report contradicted earlier research that “showed deep divergences” between the species.


“Either he has crippled himself with dyslexia or he just really has his facts mixed up,” said Board Member Robin Gary. “It’s not anything that we should base our judgments on.”


David Hillis, professor of Integrated Biology at the University of Texas, who is reviewing Forstner’s report, also denounced its science. He explained that the methods employed in the study lead to “a nonsensical analysis that has no clear interpretation.”


City of Austin Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak noted that concerns about the use of city data in the USFWS review were not warranted, and all data was subject to a rigorous scientific process, with data being made available to the public prior to analysis.


Though not required to vote on the potential listing, the board asked that City Council support the “thorough review based on solid science” of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s proposed endangered species listing of the Austin Blind and Jollyville Plateau salamanders.


The board voted 6-0 to support the resolution with Board Member James Schissler abstaining.

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