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Industry continues battle against endangered species listings

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 by Mark Richardson

Energy industry lobbyists and conservative political organizations are moving quickly after a lawsuit settlement in August allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move on more than 750 threatened species waiting to be named to the Endangered Species list.


Two species in the Austin area – the Jollyville Plateau salamander and the Austin Blind salamander – were named to the endangered list in July, while two Williamson County species – the Georgetown salamander and the Salado salamander – were given a six-month extension on a decision. Advocates for dozens of other species across Texas and hundreds across the country finally gained some certainty about their fate.


But because of the settlement, some of the state’s most powerful oil and gas lobbyists are using their money and influence to try to gain control over the Endangered Species process in Texas, hoping to block land they plan to use for exploration from becoming the protected habitat of a lizard, a salamander or a Prairie Chicken.


In fact, Williamson County appears to be Ground Zero in the decades-long fight between those who want to develop the land and those who want to preserve the natural state of the Texas Hill Country.  


Local politicians and business leaders in the county north of Austin have never been too friendly to the notion that a protected species can block highway construction and business development. Last year, U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Round Rock) lobbied hard to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the salamanders. Carter joined with Texas Sen. John Cornyn to author the Salamander Community Conservation Act, which was designed to strip the federal government’s ability to protect threatened species and give that duty to local officials. The bill didn’t make it out of Congress.


Another Williamson County organization, called the Texas Salamander Coalition, argued against established science at a Fish and Wildlife Service hearing last year that there is no correlation between increased development and a decrease in the salamander population. (See In Fact Daily, Sept 7, 2012) The organization is represented by Austin Attorney Robert Kleeman, but its website neither names any officers or members, nor does it list the source of its funding.


More recently, Williamson County officials have complained that the naming of the two salamanders to the Endangered Species list could cost upwards of $29 million in administrative costs and loss of use of some land over 20-plus years. Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey told KEYE TV last week that such expense could have a ripple effect through the local economy, affecting schools, cities and the county’s future tax base.


In other locations around the state, the oil and gas lobby has worked to gain control over the fate of key species that it believes could interfere with energy exploration. In far West Texas ranging into southern New Mexico, energy lobbyists won a battle last year to keep the threatened Sand Dune Lizard from endangered status. Landowners who would have been affected by a federal ruling agreed to take steps to protect the lizard, ceding responsibility to local and state officials.


Heartened by that victory, the energy lobby has set its sights on the Lesser Prairie Chicken in southeast Texas. Earlier this year, a law firm representing ExxonMobil created a nonprofit foundation called the American Habitat Center. The center is set up to act as a habitat “mitigation bank,” which will allow companies to voluntarily enroll land they are leasing for development and buy credits to offset habitat disturbances. 


The first test of this process will be to take money from the credits and buy potential habitat land for the Prairie Chicken, blocking the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing it as an Endangered Species. The plan isn’t foolproof and even faces some opposition from smaller energy companies that don’t have deep pockets and some Texas state officials worried about losing control of state lands.

The plan is likely to end up in the courts.


City of Austin officials say the designation of two local salamanders to the Endangered Species list won’t affect any projects currently under way. City Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak said that the city anticipated the Jollyville Plateau salamander’s designation and developed a protection plan in 2011 that was just as stringent as the Endangered Species Act. Lesniak said that the salamander’s designation has not interfered with the city’s work on Water Treatment Plant 4 and its distribution system.


He added that the Austin Blind salamander is already in a protected habitat near the Barton Springs pool.   


On August 19, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity announced it had reached a settlement with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service on the status of 757 species whose petitions for Endangered Species status had been on hold, some for up to 20 years. The settlement bestowed Endangered Species status on many of the animals, and for the others establishes a schedule on which the Fish and Wildlife Service will make a determination on the rest of the species, with a schedule made out through 2018.


Tierra Curry with the Center said the delay in getting determinations was mostly political.


“It’s no secret that our agenda is opposed by many conservative political groups,” she said. “The problems began during the (George W.) Bush Administration. For almost a decade, they blocked all efforts to move forward with determinations of Endangered Species.”


She said things began to improve with the election of Barack Obama to the White House, but that her agency almost always faces an uphill battle to protect threatened species.

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