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sacbee.com -- Environment -- Vulnerable species could get a boost

Vulnerable species could get a boost  --
(more than $773 million)

But a plan to protect vernal pools immediately proves controversial.

By Michael Doyle -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, November 19, 2004

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WASHINGTON - Restoring and protecting 33 vernal pool species found throughout the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills could cost more than $773 million and take decades to accomplish under a federal plan proposed Thursday.

If it works, the Fish and Wildlife Service plan would return from the brink threatened plants like San Joaquin Valley Orcutt grass and endangered animals like the vernal pool tadpole shrimp. Farming and urban development have long squeezed the species.

"This is a big step forward for us, to bring these species back," Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jim Nickles said Thursday. "In a lot of ways, this plan is very interesting and unique, because it includes so many different species."

Roughly 10 years in the making, and a hefty 593 pages in length, the vernal pool recovery plan covers myriad potential actions. Federal officials stress that the proposed actions are strictly voluntary for private landowners.

"We're trying to partner with the landowners to help recover the species," Nickles said.

The $773 million recovery cost estimate could be significantly slashed if the government buys conservation easements instead of securing full title to vulnerable land, officials said.

Even so, the ambitious recovery plan is causing sticker shock among lawmakers unhappy with the underlying Endangered Species Act. While the public now has 120 days to respond to the vernal pool recovery proposal, some members of Congress are pushing ahead with their own - at times controversial - legislative plans.

"This does raise quite a few questions," said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee. "Clearly, the costs are staggering. This will be yet another case study in the need to reform the Endangered Species Act."

The Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, this year passed several endangered species bills favored by farmers, developers and local officials. Generally opposed by environmentalists, and politically dicey in an election year, the bills never reached the House floor.

"The Endangered Species Act is clearly broken, as this plan indicates," said Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, adding that "it is never popular, in the general public, to tinker with the ESA, unless you live in an area like ours, where people understand it's broken."

Cardoza is the author of a bill that would tighten endangered species provisions; for instance, requiring that economic costs be considered when federal officials designate critical habitat for species. He said his bill, which was held up after passing the Resources Committee in July on a 28-14 vote, will be revived early next year.

While recovery plans do not commit manpower or funding, they are a blueprint for eventually removing a species from the threatened or endangered lists.

The vernal pool plan calls for "small, large and intermediate-sized reserves" of protected land, though large reserves are described as the most efficient. Public education, continued research and mapping, and re-introducing species into certain areas are other likely tactics.

"This draft recovery plan cannot be implemented in a static manner, (or as if) following a recipe, if recovery of the species is to be achieved," the plan notes. "The threats and environmental conditions existing today may be vastly different from those that will be present in 5, 20, or 50 years."

The costs, too, can be both long-term and somewhat speculative. A recovery plan proposed last year for the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, for instance, pegged costs at $20 million over two decades. A California red-legged frog recovery plan issued two years ago pegged costs at $10 million.

"Having worked at the local level, I know that these estimates can either be wildly inflated or they can be substantially under, depending on how the plans are implemented," Cardoza said.

Comparatively speaking, the vernal pool recovery proposal is more expensive by orders of magnitude. But it also is ecologically complex and geographically sweeping, reaching much of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys as well as the southern Sierra Nevada, among other regions.

The plan, for instance, pegs costs at $75,000 a year to investigate controlling invasive plants, $266,000 annually to clean up contaminated sites at the Air Force's Davis Communications Annex, $374,000 annually to conduct vernal pool site surveys, and much more.

"It will take several decades to bring these species back," Nickles said.

Specifically, the plan anticipates recovering most of the species by the year 2062 - in another 58 years. The species targeted include 20 that are formally listed as threatened or endangered and another 13 - like the mid-valley fairy shrimp - that are deemed "species of concern."

The vernal pool plan focuses on 683,000 acres that federal officials have identified as the highest priority, because they have the highest concentration of vernal pools. Expanding recovery plans to include an additional 900,000 lower-priority acres would boost the estimated recovery costs to $2.1 billion.

The plan's stated overall goal is to "achieve and protect in perpetuity self-sustaining populations of each species."


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