WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to reclassify the Santa Cruz cypress as threatened, a downlisting from its current endangered status. The proposed change is in response to a petition filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a “public interest property rights” organization, that asked the USFWS to delist or downlist the cypress and five other plants and animals based on the agency’s recent five-year reviews for those species. The PLF styles itself as “the preeminent force in the nation’s courts to address abuses of the Endangered Species Act,” according to the organization’s web site.
In contrast, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the USFWS’ most frequent environmental litigants, hailed the proposed delisting as a win for the Endangered Species Act. “Opponents of the Endangered Species Act unfairly criticize the law for recovering too few species, failing to acknowledge that most protected species are still many years away from their projected recovery dates. [This] announcement reinforces what studies have already shown, that the Endangered Species Act has not only prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its protection, but has consistently helped those species to recover,” the group said in its press release.
The Santa Cruz cypress is a small tree that grows only 20 to 30 feet high and can live up to a 100 years. It is found in five populations in an area that spans 15 miles through California’s Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. Four of the populations are managed for conservation by county and state agencies. The fifth population is entirely on private land owned by a “conservation-oriented landowner,” that is also designated by Santa Cruz County as environmentally sensitive, which places restrictions on most development, according to the action.
When it was listed as endangered in 1987, the cypress faced primary threats from logging, agricultural conversion, oil and gas drilling and development. When the recovery plan was developed in 1998, those threats were already decreasing, but the trees faced additional threats from reproductive isolation, genetic infiltration, competition with non-native species such as Acacia and French broom, and changes in the natural fire sequence due to fire control methods.
Because fire is needed for seed germination, fire exclusion and fire suppression methods lengthen the intervals in the natural fire cycle and increase the risk of local extinction due to the lack of new trees. “Conversely, human ignitions contribute to fire intervals that are too short, which in turn can inhibit Santa Cruz cypress from reaching its reproductive potential if stands burn prior to trees reaching reproductive age,” the action noted.
The USFWS now considers the species to be secure from the primary threats to its immediate survival, but because the cypress still faces ongoing threats to its long-term persistence, it meets the agency’s definition of threatened, the agency’s statement noted.
As part of the recovery plan, the seeds are banked as “insurance” against reproductive failure. Seeds from two of the populations have not been banked, which means that based on the information currently available, all of the delisting criterion for the species has not yet been met, the action said.
Comments and information on the listing proposal are due Nov. 4.
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