Two Texas Salamanders Listed as Threatened

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Two Texas salamanders now have Endangered Species Act protection, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also proposes to allow continuing development under a special rule.
     The listing protection was spurred by a 2011 court settlement between the federal agency and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) environmental group that resulted in a five-year workplan for the agency to finalize listings for hundreds of species across the country.
     The salamanders were once thought to be the same species, but molecular evidence supports the current classification. The two-inch long salamanders live in springs and caves in the Edwards aquifer in central Texas.
     The biggest threat they face is degraded water quality, mainly from impervious cover (such as roads, sidewalks and buildings), hazardous spills from underground storage tanks and sewage lines, construction activities, quarries, industrial pollutants, pesticides and irrigation with wastewater effluent.
     Many salamander species transform from an aquatic form to a terrestrial form, but these two species do not. They remain aquatic throughout their lives and they retain their feathery external gills and permeable skin for respiration, making them especially vulnerable to changes in water quality.
     The Georgetown salamander is found in only 15 springs along five tributaries to the San Gabriel River and in two caves in Williamson County, while the Salado salamander has been found in only seven spring sites on Salado Creek in Bell County, according to the agency's statement.
     The USFWS granted the salamanders a "threatened" listing status, a downgrade from the previously proposed "endangered" status, noting that state and local actions have benefited water quality.
     "I'm glad these salamanders are finally protected, but disappointed the Fish and Wildlife Service is backtracking on the level of protection," Collette Adkins Giese, a CBD lawyer was quoted as saying in the group's press release. "The Endangered Species Act has been more than 99 percent effective at saving species, but it needs to be utilized to its fullest extent if it is going to save these and other rare species that are the wild heritage of central Texas."
     The USFWS has also proposed a separate special rule for the Georgetown salamander to allow development activities to continue "if they are in compliance with ordinances adopted in December by Williamson County and the City of Georgetown to protect water quality. These ordinances include steps to reduce contamination from spills and establishment of buffer zones around the species' habitat," the agency said.
     "We will continue to work with local communities, landowners and others to ensure a healthy Edwards Aquifer for the communities and the species that depend upon it," Adam Zerrenner, the USFWS's Austin Field Office Supervisor was quoted as saying in the agency's statement.
     The listing is effective March 26. Comments on the proposed special rule are due April 25.