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Habitat under scrutiny

By JEANINE GORE

Half Moon Bay Review

Officials from the California Department of Fish and Game visited Wavecrest property Monday afternoon to document what at first appeared to be a rare and exceptional find - an endangered San Francisco garter snake found lying dead on a clot of soil.

Looks can be deceiving.

Whether it is a San Francisco garter or not remained unknown at press time.

"I think it's probably not a San Francisco garter snake," said Fish and Game biologist Dave Johnston. After looking at the snake on the property, he explained that it is more likely a relative - an unprotected lookalike known as the Coast garter.

The approximately 18-inch specimen was found on the northeast corner of Wavecrest. It was half buried in a deep brown stripe of newly tilled earth. Though the snake was not lacerated, its underbelly was scuffed, possibly a result of the mowing and tilling that occurred Nov. 12, said Serge Glushkoff, an environmental scientist with the state agency.

"The key thing will be to confirm what it is," he said.

After taking numerous photographs, a Fish and Game warden placed the snake in a brown paper bag. The reptile was taken to Belmont where, in the chilly confines of a locked freezer, it awaits a positive identification.

The two men continued to stroll over much of the tilled land before leaving at about 3 p.m.

Fish and Game Warden Rick Brunke said he had good reason to comb the area.

"If there's one (snake) there's a strong possibility that there may be more," he said, though he did not find any.

With resplendent bands of electric blue, red and black, the Coast garter snake closely resembles its protected cousin with one primary difference: The Coast garter has a bluish-brownish head while the San Francisco variety dons a strikingly reddish-orange skull.

Fish and Game Patrol Lt. Don Kelly said he could not estimate when the snake would be examined, whether it would happen within hours or days.

Either way, the find is important, he said.

With "the highly political nature of the (Wavecrest) project," Kelly said, the department wants to be sure everything's done correctly and that no stone is left unturned.

On one hand, the snake may be nothing out of the ordinary. On the other, it could be a San Francisco garter meaning, "This could be something that confirms everyone's worst fears about why they can't develop," Kelly said.

The state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated Wavecrest as suitable habitat for the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog. Both are protected species.

Along with the California Coastal Commission, the two government agencies are currently determining how that new habitat designation will affect the project, if at all, Johnston said.

The recent discovery of a dead snake is not the first of its kind on Wavecrest property.

Following the property owner's decision Nov. 12 to allow a portion of Wavecrest to be mowed and tilled - a legal act unless an endangered species is injured in the process - others have reported finding dead snakes on the land.

None has been positively identified as a San Francisco garter.

One of those reports came from the city of Half Moon Bay itself, which forwarded two photographs of a dead snake to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Nov. 15.

The following day, on Nov. 16, a Coastside resident found a shriveled up snake on the property while walking her dogs.

Still, more rumors of snake discoveries are trickling in. And the confusion over their identities abounds.

Meanwhile, the property owner, Concar Enterprises, maintains 24-hour surveillance of the private property.

For Wavecrest developers who've spent six years mired in environmental regulations, struggling unsuccessfully for permitting approval, the discovery of a common garter snake would be the equivalent of a big slithering sigh of relief.

Historically, endangered San Francisco garters have been harbingers of trouble for development projects across the Bay Area, with the most recent and famous example being the San Francisco International Airport expansion.

In 2002 the grandiose project was stalled for more than a year after the carcass of a San Francisco garter was found. The project was stalled, forcing developers to pay $1 million in analysis and amendment costs.



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