*This is a press release submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to act on a 2012 petition to protect Shasta salamanders under the Endangered Species Act.
Since the petition was filed, the species was split into three distinct species, each of which is rare and imperiled.The salamanders are imminently threatened by plans to raise the height of Northern California’s Shasta Dam, which would result in extensive flooding of their habitat.
“These unique salamanders, like so many in California, are careening toward extinction and need immediate protection to survive,” said Jenny Loda, a Center biologist and attorney who works to protect vulnerable amphibians and reptiles. “It’s shameful the Trump administration is dragging its feet on protections for these salamanders while plans to raise the dam and flood their habitat are moving forward.”
Work to raise Shasta Dam had stalled in recent years. But after former Westlands Water District lobbyist David Bernhardt was appointed as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the project has been fast-tracked. Westlands has long supported raising the dam to provide more water for agricultural operations. At Interior Bernhardt oversees both the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will decide the fate of the salamander, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for the Shasta Dam project. The dam project now appears to have new life.
This past spring Congress allocated $20 million in the 2018 federal omnibus bill to the project and pre-construction work started shortly after. The Bureau of Reclamation plans to award a construction contract in December 2019. Construction to raise the height of the dam would begin sometime in late spring or summer of 2020.
The Fish and Wildlife Service does not plan to review whether the Shasta salamander requires protection through a 12-month finding until 2022 — 10 years after the petition was filed and two years after construction is slated to begin. Such a delayed decision would clearly come too late for these salamanders.
“There can’t be a clearer case of the fox guarding the henhouse than having David Bernhardt deciding whether or not this salamander gets protection,” said Loda. “This dam is on a fast track, while plans to save the salamander are in limbo.”
Long delays in protecting species under the Endangered Species Act have been a persistent problem for decades. At least 42 species have gone extinct waiting for protection.
“If we’re going to save the Shasta salamanders, there’s no time to waste,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center. “With a near-perfect record at saving the species it protects from extinction, the Endangered Species Act is our best hope for keeping these rare creatures in the world.”
When the 2012 petition was filed, the salamander was known as only one species: the Shasta salamander. But new research published in April revealed that the Shasta salamander in California is actually three species — each more endangered than previously thought. All three live in the vicinity of Shasta Lake.
Shasta salamanders are 4 inches long and dark reddish-brown. Their restricted range, coupled with ongoing threats of habitat destruction and degradation, leaves them extremely vulnerable to extinction.
The recently described Samwel Shasta salamander was named for its original discovery site, Samwel Cave, and the Wintu Shasta salamander is named for the original habitants of the region, the Winnemem Wintu tribe. All three species are found within a range of about 330 square miles in the vicinity of Shasta Lake.