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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on May 20th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 12

The elusive California tiger salamander costs a pretty penny to protect

By RON FINK

The California tiger salamander is an elusive creature that has been causing local ranchers, vintners, farmers, and developers a collective migraine for decades.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes them this way: “The species is restricted to grasslands and low foothills with pools or ponds that are necessary for breeding. A California tiger salamander spends most of its life on land. Actually, ‘in the land’—it lives underground, using burrows made by squirrels and other burrowing mammals. Catching a California tiger salamander requires a permit, but you may be able to see larvae swimming around.”

The “pond” they are talking about is a vernal pool, which is defined as a seasonal body of standing water; basically a large mud puddle that forms during the rainy season and is totally dry during periods of drought and in the late summer.

The Central California distinct population segment of the California tiger salamander was listed as threatened on Aug. 8, 2004. This began a series of events that would cause someone to wonder about the “science” used to establish the listing. Large portions of Northern Santa Barbara County were included in the areas of concern.

There never were any historical species counts, and there was no physical evidence that the California tiger salamander ever existed within the proposed area. Biologists stated: “Data on numbers of individual California tiger salamanders are lacking, since they spend much of their lives underground, and because only a portion of the total number of animals migrate to pools to breed each year.”

Biologists admit that the salamander doesn’t appear to be a hardy breed: “Tiger salamanders breed only once or twice during their lifetime, and their lifetime reproductive success is fairly low. While individuals may survive for more than 10 years, most individuals do not reach sexual maturity until they are 2 to 5 years old, and mortality of individuals exceeds 50 percent during the first summer.”

And supporting documentation seems to uphold the notion that isolated colonies may become extinct even if protections are in place: “Because many of the areas of suitable habitat may be small and support small numbers of salamanders, local extinction may commonly occur.”

They also admit that the entire basis for the listing is based on guesswork, not science as required by the Endangered Species Act: “Little is known about the behavior of California tiger salamanders while they are underground because they are difficult to observe. The availability of suitable habitat and documentation of its loss may be an appropriate method for assessing the status of the species.”

In other words, just the loss of a vernal pond or squirrel hole is enough to establish that the species is dying out.

Thus the declaration that “the best scientific and commercial information available” was used to make this determination seems flawed.

So, fast forward to 2020; after decades of conflict between local rancher and successful farmer Bob Campbell and the environmentalist activists of Santa Barbara County, an accord seems to have been reached.

For any of you who have traveled on Highway 246 between Lompoc and Buellton, you couldn’t fail to notice some ponds after seasonal rains near the intersection of 246 and Campbell Road—these are located on the Campbell ranch property.

For years, local environmental groups have been harassing the Campbells and every other rancher, vintner, farmer, and developer in the North County. These same environmentalists are funded by the idle rich, many of whom are living on large estates that are arguably more damaging to the natural environment than the Campbell ranch could ever be.

Recently it was reported that “in early April, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County purchased a 118-acre conservation easement near Lompoc from the Bob Campbell family, protecting critical habitat for federally endangered California tiger salamanders.”

The reported consideration for the easement was $2 million. 

The report goes on: “The easement is a legal agreement between the Campbells and the Land Trust to permanently conserve a portion of the Campbell Home Ranch with habitat vital to California tiger salamanders. The Campbells’ ownership of their land remains unchanged, and they are free to continue the historic cattle operations they have undertaken for five generations.”

So after 35 years, the environmentalists got their way—sort of. The Campbell Ranches can continue their ranch operations, and it only cost $2 million to protect a critter that no one has ever seen on the property! 

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send your thoughts, comments, and opinionated letters to letters@santamariasun.com. 








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