SoCal Farmers Want|Kangaroo Rat Delisted

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – A California Farm Bureau sued the United States, claiming its refusal to delist the endangered Stephens’ kangaroo rat prevents people from protecting their land from wildfires.
     “We filed this case because Fish and Wildlife has a history of not responding to our clients’ petitions and letting the federal courts do their work for them,” the Farm Bureau’s attorney Christopher Kieser told Courthouse News.
     “They have a 90-day deadline to make an initial finding whether the petition is warranted, but that deadline has passed, so we sued to get the Federal Court to make them do what the statute says they have to do.”
     Kieser said the lawsuit is not an issue on the merits of the petition for delisting, but a challenge to the service’s lack of response to it.
     “We do believe on the merits that the Stephens’ kangaroo rat should not be listed, but we can’t get to that point until they respond to our petition.”
     Riverside County Farm Bureau and the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability sued the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday.
     The Stephens’ kangaroo rat’s major habitat is in Riverside County. Developers hate it because of the restrictions imposed by its protections, but anthropologists are charmed by it. That’s because the rats live in enormous burrows they expand and improve sometimes for more than a century. The rats love to collect things, especially shiny objects, which they bring home and keep. So excavations of old burrows sometimes provide researchers with handy collections of objects the rats stole from humans.
     The plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that “(b)ecause of the stringent land-use restrictions that the rat’s listing triggers, members of the farm bureau have seen their property values decline and have been unable to protect their property from wildfires.”
     Named for zoologist Frank Stephens (1849-1937), Dipodomys stephensi has a plump body, a long furry tufted tail, and can grow to 14 inches. The little critters can jump as much as 9 feet with their long hind legs, which is how they got their name. They live for only a few years.
     Most of its traditional range has been disrupted by development and farming, which led to its listing as endangered in 1988. It likes flat, open grassland, where it feeds on seeds, insects and plants, which it can store in cheek pouches. Its enormous burrows can contain several hundred dens. When it was listed as endangered, only 11 known populations remained.
     The plaintiffs petitioned Fish and Wildlife to delist the species in 1995 and again in 2002, “on the grounds that the service had underestimated the rat’s population and available habitat.”
     Fish and Wildlife did not respond until 2010. It found there were more populations of the rat than in 1988, and that much of its habitat was protected, but habitat destruction and population fragmentation were enough of a threat to keep it on the endangered list. Riverside County has seen enormous population growth since the 1980s, when Interstate 15 was completed. Before then the area was a quiet backwater, with traffic concentrated on the coast.
     The Farm Bureau claims that Fish and Wildlife completed a 5-year review in 2011, and found that the “number of known rat populations ha(d) more than doubled since it was listed, and recommended that the rat be downlisted from endangered to threatened,” but not done so.
     The plaintiffs asked again in November 2014 that the species be removed from the endangered list. They claimed that “the rat’s dispersal ability is much greater than the studies the service relied upon … [and] that the service’s findings that threats from small populations and habitat fragmentation still exist are inaccurate.”
     Fish and Wildlife missed its 90-day deadline to respond.
     Kieser is with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which opposes federal regulation of private property.
     “This case is really about allowing people to use their property in reasonable ways,” he said. “When a species is listed as endangered that is not endangered, like the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, it lets the federal government have more power to regulate property.”
     Kieser claims the lawsuit was filed to uphold the Endangered Species Act, not circumvent it.
     “We do these cases to make sure Fish and Wildlife only lists species that belong on the Endangered Species list based on the best available science, and we file petitions to ensure they respond to the petitions as per their statutory duties,” Kieser said.
     Fish and Wildlife declined to comment, but said it expects to make a decision on the Stephens’ kangaroo rat soon.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the defendants’ failure to act violated the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. They want the court to order the service to act on their petition “by a date certain.”
     The Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy & Reliability describes itself as a Fresno-based nonprofit whose goals are to “bring scientific rigor to regulatory decisions under environmental statues and ensure consistent application of such statues throughout all industries and sectors.”

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