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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Endangered California Plants Lose Habitat

WASHINGTON (CN) - Citing protections under other conservation programs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated a mere 98 acres of critical habitat for the endangered Munz' onion, and no critical habitat for the endangered San Jacinto Valley crownscale in a recent final rule.

The rule was prompted by a settlement agreement in the U.S. District Court in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) that challenged a previous final critical habitat determination, the action noted. "The agreement stipulated that the service would reconsider critical habitat designations for both A. munzii and Atriplex coronata var. notatior, and submit to the Federal Register proposed revised critical habitat determinations for both plants," according to the rule.

The two extremely rare plants are found only in the clay soils of Riverside County in southern California, and both are severely threatened by habitat loss due to the pressures of development and habitat conversion to agricultural uses.

"Protecting 100 acres is a good first step, but both these rare California plants desperately need much greater permanent habitat protection throughout their ranges," Ileene Anderson, a Center biologist, was quoted in the CBD press release. "Because of their tiny ranges and development pressure there, these rare plants could be lost to extinction if they don't have more critical habitat than this. A habitat conservation plan isn't enough to safeguard these plants because it will allow some plants to be destroyed, and it will expire whether or not the plants are recovering," Anderson said.

The USFWS identified 889 acres of habitat essential to the conservation of the Munz' onion and 8,020 acres of essential habitat for the survival of the crownscale, but maintains that the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, the Rancho Bella Vista Habitat Conservation Plan, and the Southwestern Riverside County Multi-species Reserve Cooperative Management Agreement "provide the same or better level of protection" as the Endangered Species Act, that the management strategies and actions would be "implemented for the foreseeable future, based on past practices, written guidance, or regulations," and that the conservation strategies and measures are "consistent with currently accepted principles of conservation," according to the rule.

The CBD counters that assertion by citing a 2011 incident in which "89 acres of known occupied crownscale habitat was bulldozed to create duck ponds. The destruction occurred despite the fact the area was within the boundaries of the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and a conservation easement was in place through the Western Riverside Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan."

"Scientific studies have shown that species with protected critical habitat are more likely to recover than species without it. The 98-acre area designated [...] for Munz's onion slashes by more than half the critical habitat that was designated in 2005," according to the group's statement.

However, the agency's position is that "the primary effect of designating any particular area as critical habitat is the requirement for federal agencies to consult with [the USFWS] under section 7 of the act to ensure actions they carry out, authorize, or fund do not adversely modify designated critical habitat. Absent critical habitat designation in occupied areas, federal agencies remain obligated under section 7 of the act to consult with [the USFWS] on actions that may affect a federally listed species to ensure such actions do not jeopardize the species' continued existence," according to the rule.

Both species were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

The new rule becomes effective May 16, 2013.

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