Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rare salamander, other species prompt state questions (Via Herp Digest)

Rare salamander, other species prompt state questions (Hellbender)
Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011By SAMMY FRETWELL - sfretwell@thestate.com, from the State.com

No one knows much about hellbenders in South Carolina, but recent federal action has focused attention on whether the big salamanders need special protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The slithering amphibians are among 46 plants and animals being studied in South Carolina for possible listing under the law.

But while environmentalists say the review will help save many dwindling species, state wildlife officials say the federal initiative comes with a price.

Protecting many of these species could restrict development on private land and cost the state a pile of money, say officials with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. One DNR estimate placed the cost in the millions of dollars, although state officials note that it's too early to say definitively.

"We don't know for sure yet what is going to happen," DNR board chairwoman Caroline Rhodes said. "But the expectation is that if these particular species are listed, then you have to have the money to do whatever it is to protect them or re-establish them.''

Rhodes, recently appointed to chair the board by Gov. Nikki Haley, said she supports the goal of the federal law - to save endangered plants and animals - but she is skeptical that so many species might need special protected status in South Carolina. The review is a sweeping look at species and is not normally taken by the federal agency.

"If a species is clearly endangered, it's something we would try to do,'' she said. "But if this is just a stumbling block for economic development ...Well, I hope that wouldn't happen."

In response to a legal petition by environmentalists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in September that it would review the status of 374 species in the South to see whether they should receive special protection under the endangered species law. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soliciting comments from the public about the multitude of plants and animals that one day could be listed as a federally protected endangered species.

After the comments are received, the government eventually will determine whether more research is needed or whether to list the plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act. The listings aren't expected immediately because the Fish and Wildlife Service has several hundred other species already under review, agency spokesman Tom Mackenzie said. Action may not be taken to list any of the 374 species for five years or more, he said.

Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he's glad the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken action. As information comes in, the agency will learn more about which plants and animals need extra protection and which do not, he said. His group filed the legal request that prompted the federal review.

"To the extent this does cost money, I'd say it's money well spent,'' Greenwald said. "It's something (wildlife agencies) are supposed to be doing: ensure species are not lost. This is a good thing.''
In South Carolina, the 46 species that could be listed include four kinds of crayfish, 25 different types of flowering plants, two kinds of fish and numerous insects, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. Also included on the study list is the Carolina Hemlock, a tree found almost exclusively on dry mountain sides in the southern Appalachians.

As for hellbenders, DNR officials don't think the animals exist in South Carolina, but they can't say for sure because they've never done an extensive study. Still, they're hoping their professional opinion will persuade the federal government not to list hellbenders as endangered in this state or initiate costly state studies.

Hellbenders, which can grow to more than two feet long, are among the largest salamanders in North America. Typically, they are found in cold rocky streams across the South. One South Carolina DNR report says two hellbenders were caught in Lake Tugaloo in the state's northwest corner. Officials suspect the animals were brought there as fish bait and escaped, but they were not native to the lake, the agency's Breck Carmichael said.

Carmichael also said the robust redhorse, a fish species once thought to be extinct in South Carolina, is making a recovery through efforts to raise them in hatcheries. As a result, they don't need to be listed, Carmichael said.

Praised by conservationists as a way to protect species that could become extinct, the Endangered Species Act sometimes draws criticism from landowners and businesses worried that the discovery of a rare species will restrict use of their property. The presence of endangered animals or plants, for instance, can require landowners to take extra steps so they won't disturb the species when developing property.

That has hit home recently with the state-owned Santee Cooper power company. The company says it might have to spend a billion dollars to help protect and revive populations of shortnose sturgeon, a bony fish already listed under the endangered species law. Shortnose sturgeon populations dropped after Santee Cooper built dams to form lakes Marion and Moultrie in the early 20th century.
In the 1990s, landowners also had to work out agreements to protect red-cockaded woodpeckers, which are also endangered in South Carolina.

Greenwald questioned whether the DNR would have to spend much money because of the review. And he said claims that people lose property rights when endangered species are found on their land is an overblown argument.

"Generally, if there is a conflict, the Fish and Wildlife Service goes out of its way to work things out in a way that is equitable to landowners,'' he said. "I'd also say that if you are a landowner and you are blessed to have unusual species or habitat on your land, in some ways that's a treasure. You have an opportunity to help preserve species for future generations.''

But John Frampton, the DNR's outgoing director, said the state's budget woes don't make the matter any easier. The DNR's budget has been slashed dramatically in recent years.

"We've got no money for endangered species," Frampton said, noting that "if you think you've got problems with sturgeon and red cockaded woodpeckers, you haven't seen anything yet."

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