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Drought & Development Threaten Critter

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's endangered giant garter snakes need water just as people do, but it may become extinct because the federal government is 20 years overdue on a plan to protect it, environmentalists claim in court.

One of the United States' largest domestic snakes, the wetland-loving giant garter snake can grow to 5½ feet. It is one of four endangered snakes in California.

"It's a tough species to go to bat for," because it isn't cute and fuzzy, Defenders of Wildlife attorney Jay Tutchton said. It's more likely to defend itself from an unwary human with snake poop than fangs.

Industrial, commercial and residential development have destroyed 98 percent of its natural habitat, forcing it into rice fields and irrigation ditches. Water transfers to fight drought could leave the snake practically homeless, as rice fields are converted to dry-land use, pesticides kill off of its prey, and livestock grazing along water sources robs it of vegetation it needs to survive.

Listed as a threatened species in 1993, the giant garter snake has already lost two of its 13 historical populations and several others are "on the ropes," Tutchton said. His client, Defenders of Wildlife, sued Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell under the Endangered Species Act on Wednesday in Federal Court, for shirking her duty to create a final recovery plan for the species.

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to develop recovery plans for endangered species within 2½ years of their listing. It must prioritize species whose conservation is at odds with "construction or other development projects, or other forms of economic activity," the complaint states.

But 22 years have passed since the giant garter snake was listed, and there is no final recovery plan for it.

"We think the delay is unreasonable," Tutchton said. "There really is no excuse."

Several draft plans have been written, including one in 1999 that identified 52 recovery actions, but 37 of those actions were never taken despite the snake's shrinking numbers and the increasing threat from industrialization.

"I think they just don't want to write it down publicly because it may upset people," Tutchton said. "When agencies are paralyzed for inexplicable reasons, it's usually because they know what they need to do is upsetting to entrenched interests.

"Otherwise, it's inexplicable."

Like most garter snakes, the giant ones range in color from brown to olive green to jet black on top, with light brown or gray underbellies and yellow or orange stripes down their backs and sides.

Though its size may frighten someone who stumbles across it, the giant garter snake is non-venomous and not dangerous to people. Toxins in its saliva kill its prey of fish, frogs and tadpoles, but the snakes are notoriously shy, and will dart into water or cover if startled.

They are most active during the day when temperatures are about 68 degrees and on evenings when water is warm. They mate in the spring and give live birth to three to 80 young snakes during the summer. In winter, they borrow the burrows of small mammals to wait out the cold.

Native to the Central Valley, the giant garter snake's historical range stretched from Kern County in the south to Butte County in the north. Its once plentiful numbers have shrunk to small pockets in Glenn County and the San Francisco Delta and from Merced County to Fresno County.

Tutchton said one of the giant garter snake's problems is its "potential to interfere with stuff people want to do."

"If a plan says we have to protect the snake, it can be seen as foreclosing opportunities for urban sprawl. It would also put a limiting screen on water transfers because it would identify areas that need to be preserved as snake habitat," he said.

The Defenders of Wildlife do not oppose water transfers, but wants them to be part of the snake's recovery plan, to ensure there is enough water for the snake and for people, Tutchton said.

Its decline is symptomatic of the loss of wetlands in California.

"Like many endangered species, it is a harbinger for how the environment is faring," Tutchton said. "The most sensitive members of an ecosystem are the ones blinking out first.

"Giant garter snakes are more sensitive than birds or things with fur that people like and which share its habitat. People should be worried that the animals they find cute won't be far behind the snake. The Valley is losing the remaining natural and altered habitats where wildlife can survive."

A recovery plan would warn other federal agencies to respect conservation before making any decision involving water. But because the government has never completed such a plan, "It allows bureaucrats more flexibility because there's nothing to make sure their actions are consistent," Tutchton said.

"If you want to spur a species to recovery, step one is to find out what science says recovery looks like for that species, make a plan for it and decide on a goal post," the attorney said. "It should be a shared goal between the government and conservationists, but we're getting stuck because the government won't write down the goal post."

Defenders of Wildlife points out that other species with lower recovery priority rankings have received final recovery plans, but not the giant garter snake.

"The basic point is it's been too long," Tutchton said. "It's not serving anyone that the government won't put the thing out in the sunshine and subject it to public review.

"You've had 22 years to do your work; let's see what you've come up with."

The government did not return requests for comment Thursday.

Defenders of Wildlife seeks declaratory judgment that the government violated the Endangered Species Act, and an injunction ordering it to complete a recovery plan for the giant garter snake by a reasonable date certain.

Tutchton works in Defenders of Wildlife's Denver office.

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