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Listing of endangered species likely to have scant effect on Travis County

Thursday, October 11, 2012 by Michael Kanin

According to a staff briefing delivered to Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday, the potential federal endangered-species listing of four types of salamanders found only in Travis County and Central Texas would have minimal effect on county operations.


The county’s Natural Resource Program Manager Rose Farmer suggested that such a listing – an act that could eventually protect both the salamanders and the habitats that support their existence – would include few regions of the unincorporated portion of the county’s jurisdiction. Staffers also pointed out that the county is already experienced with protections for endangered species through its participation in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the more than 30,000 acres in western Travis County set aside to provide habitat for rare and endangered animal and plant species found nowhere else on earth.


Supporting the federal listing of the rare salamanders would pit Travis County against Williamson County, where officials and residents have objected listing the salamanders as endangered.


In late August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended adding the Austin Blind, Jollyville Plateau, Salado and Georgetown salamanders to the federal endangered species list, a process that will take about a year. The Austin Blind and Jollyville salamander species are found in Travis County.


Williamson County elected officials and property owners argue that there is not enough scientific evidence to support the salamander listings. Travis County officials are not so sure. County Environmental Quality Program Manager Jon White told commissioners that staff reviewed a host of literature and scientific materials. “We believe that the evidence supports the listing of the species, as well as the identification of critical habitat,” he said.


Commissioner Ron Davis asked White how Fish and Wildlife might view split area sentiment over the question of listing the salamanders. White responded that he wasn’t sure. “Commissioner, in an ideal world (Fish and Wildlife) would make their decision based upon the biology of the species and not with regard to political boundaries,” he said. “But we all know that it doesn’t really play out that way, so I don’t think we can actually predict how they would react to something like that.”


White then used Davis’ question as an opportunity to lay out the situation. “I do know that the folks from Williamson County in particular – various organizations up there – will be offering scientifically based evidence to make their case,” he said.


Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe used a canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy offered by Commissioner Karen Huber to illustrate that salamander protections could have wide-ranging benefits that would extend beyond species preservation. “We may receive multiple benefits,” he said. These could extend into water-quality protections that would come thanks to habitat preservation that would result from the listing of the salamanders.


The court will consider a written statement on the matter at its next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

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