When Congress created the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it was with noble goals in mind. We wanted to save and restore our populations of eagles, bison, and other species that were in danger of extinction.
The Act has been enormously effective. Many of the originally targeted populations have increased so dramatically that they have now been removed from the endangered species list, including the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Grizzly Bear, and others.
But in recent years we have seen the ESA hijacked by special-interest groups using the courts to impose a radical anti-development, preservationist agenda on the nation. This agenda is not about saving species. It is about gradually blocking future economic development and suburban growth, and using the ESA to effectively seize control of private land.
In May 2011 USFWS signed a settlement agreement to a lawsuit filed by a group called WildEarth Guardians which forces USFWS to make endangered species determinations on at least 251 species over the next six years.
This is the agenda we now face here in Central Texas as USFWS investigates whether the Austin Blind, Salado, Jollyville Plateau, and Georgetown Salamanders in Bell, Williamson, and Travis counties are threatened or endangered -- and in our case, render this decision by September 30 of this year.
The Jollyville Plateau Salamander is a small, brown salamander that lives in springs in northwest Austin and southern Williamson County. Most of the known locations for this species are within lands already protected under the Austin and Travis County Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP).
The Georgetown Salamander is a small salamander that is believed to exist only in Williamson County. It is found in springs in the forks and tributary creeks of the San Gabriel River, and wet caves. The Williamson County Conservation Foundation (WCCF), established by Williamson County Government, is developing a conservation plan for these habitats, and is in the second year of a five-year study of the species and habitat. These studies also include areas which drain into salamander habitat, as that naturally affects the water quality of the habitat.
Williamson County has purchased the Twin Springs Preserve, which is one of the known habitats of the Georgetown Salamander, and has protected a significant portion of the drainage area for Cobb Spring which hosts a salamander population. USFWS has recognized these efforts by lowering the Georgetown Salamander endangered species listing priority level from a 2 to a level 8 status.
The Salado Salamander is grayish-brown with a flat head and round snout, and is very elusive. USFWS is not certain of whether it still exists. It has been found in the springs that feed Salado Creek in Bell County. USFWS searched for the salamander from 1991-98 and found none, while Texas Parks and Wildlife researchers found just one in weekly searches over the past three years.
The result of USFWS listing these salamanders as endangered species could be economically devastating, especially in Williamson and Bell County, which have prospered through much of this recession due to our continued growth.
Construction of new homes, schools, roads, bridges, water treatment plants, and businesses could be brought to a screeching halt in much of the area. Even additions to existing homes and businesses could be blocked if the land is determined to be part of salamander habitat -- and remember that can be any land that could drain into an area with salamanders, meaning much of both counties. Not only would growth end, existing property values could drop due to the new restrictions.
Our counties are moving aggressively to prevent these salamanders from being added to the endangered species list. They are doing it the right way, by taking concrete steps to ensure these species survive, through voluntary, local habitat protection measures.
This month, I joined with our Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison in asking U.S. Fish and Wildlife to refrain from listing these species in light of the preservation work underway by local government.
This past week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife acknowledged that these efforts can work. The agency formally determined that the dunes sagebrush lizard -- another species under the same settlement agreement as our salamanders - does not need endangered species protections because voluntary conservation agreements now in place in New Mexico and Texas already ensures the long-term protection and recovery of the species.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, "this is a great example of how states and landowners are taking early, landscape-level action to protect a creature and its habitat before it requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act the voluntary conservation efforts of Texas and New Mexico, oil and gas operators, private landowners and other stakeholders show that we don't have to choose between energy development and the protection our land and wildlife -- we can do both."
We can -- and are - doing both here in Central Texas. If we let reliable and replicable science determine our path instead of lawsuits and politics, we can create a sustainable environment for both salamanders and Texans.