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Public weighs in at hearings on salamanders

Friday, September 7, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held a hearing on Wednesday and another last night on its proposal to add four rare Central Texas salamanders to the federal endangered species list.


The hearings were separated by a mere 20 miles, but they seemed worlds apart. Wednesday’s meeting in Williamson County, in a hotel conference room in Round Rock, reportedly attracted 450 vocal people, most of whom opposed the proposed protections for the salamander. In contrast, Thursday’s meeting on the University of Texas campus in Austin drew about 50 people who were split on both sides of the issue.


Among those at the Austin hearing was Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance, who was nothing if not patient at Thursday night’s Austin hearing.


Bunch has the time, and the patience, to make it through the lengthy federal process that would declare the Jollyville plateau salamander, and its cousins, as protected under the Endangered Species Act and dedicating critical habit, both above ground and below ground, in Williamson-Travis-Bell counties.


Bunch, like fellow attendees at the hearing Roy Waley and Skip Cameron, has spent more than a decade cataloging and following the endangered species and pushing the creation of city ordinances to protect them in Travis County.


Asked whether he had prepared comments on behalf of SOS Alliance for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s public hearing, Bunch said no. But he had time. “We’re just at the beginning of the process,” Bunch said. “Comments don’t even close until Oct. 22.”


The SOS Alliance will have plenty of paperwork and research to share before that deadline, primarily on the habitat and habits of the Jollyville plateau salamander. The current proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which could be adopted or amended, is to designate 5,983 acres as critical habitat in the three counties, primarily for the Jollyville salamander, but also the Austin blind, Georgetown and Salado salamanders.


In Williamson County, where Wednesday night’s hearing took place, Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter lobbied hard to avoid listing the salamanders, saying it would be a deterrent to development. He set up at least two opportunities for reporters to see salamanders in local creek beds, near new development.


In contrast, Thursday night’s hearing in Austin was split between those on both sides of the issue. It was a rather neutral hearing facilitated by Adam Zerrenner, the leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Austin field office.


Merely comparing the two hearings, it was obvious that Williamson County residents were more alarmed by the issue.


Attorney Robert Kleeman, who represents a group calling itself the Texas Salamander Coalition, which is fighting the proposed endangered species designation, attended both hearings. He argued at the Austin event that there was not a correlation between increased development and the resulting impervious cover and a decrease in the salamander population.


“I can argue all sorts of things correlate,” Kleeman said. “Back in the ‘90s, they argued that there were only seven Barton Springs salamanders left. Now the annual count is in the hundreds, if not thousands. I could make the argument that impervious cover in the Barton Springs watershed has increased the number of salamanders, even though that doesn’t make sense at all.”


Zerrenner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seemed calm and even soothing in his reply, saying that new information, and all information, would be weighed in the final consideration of the rule. Agency staffers even promised to post all available records, including 250 different source materials, on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website.


“We will be looking at that study and the results in conjunction with the comments that will be provided, additional information and the scientific peer review in making the final decision,” said Zerrenner. “I can’t be … pre-decisional … but we will be looking at all that information and the comments you brought up when we make our final determination.”


During a question-and-answer session prior to the hearing, the questions ranged from curious to adversarial. One man wanted to know what the salamanders ate and what the impact would be on the ecological system if they disappeared. A woman with a background in biology questioned distance requirements in critical habitat.


Austin environmental activist Skip Cameron asked for an explanation of the habitat in the Bull Creek watershed, privately owned versus publicly owned, and the “geopolitical ramifications” of the 13-year stakeholder study of the issue. Zerrenner politely declined to answer, saying Cameron was far better qualified than he was to offer the explanation of the question that he asked.


Williamson County residents wanted to know about impact of an endangered species designation, which Zerrenner had a tough time defining, given the fluid nature of the process. Agency staffers noted that the court rulings had limited the higher bar for permits around “critical habitat” to those projects that had federal involvement or federal permits, typically infrastructure such as federal highways or cut-and-fill permits required by the Army Corps of Engineers for private development in critical habitat zones.


Gary Belcher, vice president of Concordia University, said the university in northwest Austin has a so-called 10(a) permit for the golden-cheeked warbler habitat. It also sits in the middle of potential salamander habitat. Belcher asked about the repercussions if the salamanders were listed.


The implications should be few, barring federally funded projects, said agency staff. During a break in the hearing, Bunch said the perverse effects of the law are that the bar for the Endangered Species Act Section 7 permits often are considered lower than securing the 10(a) permits from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


According to a timeline presented by the agency, the current public comment period and peer review period closes on Oct. 22. A draft economic analysis impact statement will trigger a second round of hearings in January. A final determination for listing is expected in August 2013.

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