For Immediate Release: Dec. 20, 2006
Court Orders California Fish and Game Commission
SACRAMENTO, Calif.--Judge Lloyd G. Connelly of the Sacramento Superior Court has overturned the California Fish and Game Commission’s rejection of a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (Center) to list the California Tiger Salamander under the state’s wildlife protection law. The written opinion, issued Dec. 14, 2006, overturned the commission’s 3-2 vote to reject the petition to list the salamander under the California Endangered Species Act.
“The thorough and well-reasoned opinion overturned the commission’s decision because the commission ignored or misrepresented the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the salamander is highly imperiled,” said Kathy Trisolini of Chatten-Brown and Carstens, who represented the Center pro-bono in the lawsuit. “This decision soundly enforces the requirement that the commission make listing decisions under the California Endangered Species Act based on the best available science.”
The petition to list the California Tiger Salamander was filed with the commission in January 2004. The Commission voted 3-2 to reject the petition at its Oct. 23, 2004 meeting. Then on Dec. 2, 2004, the commission adopted written findings purporting to support the rejection.
In a 15-page written order, Judge Connelly criticized the commission’s decision, stating “[i]n making the findings, the commission misstated or ignored substantial evidence in the administrative record and relied on conflicting information of doubtful scientific value.”
The California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) is an imperiled amphibian found only in California. Historically, the California Tiger Salamander was found throughout most of the Central Valley, adjacent foothills, and Coast Range, as well as in the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma County and in Santa Barbara County.
The majority of historic California Tiger Salamander habitat already has been lost to urban and agricultural development. Extreme habitat fragmentation is increasingly isolating populations and causing local extirpations that will lead rapidly to extinction of the species. It is also threatened by interbreeding with non-native species, predation and other threats. More than two dozen independent scientists who study the species supported the petition to list the California Tiger Salamander under the California Endangered Species Act. The Department of Fish and Game, which acts as a scientific advisor to the commission, also supported the Center’s petition in every regard and recommended that the commission accept it and advance the salamander to the stage in the listing process known as “Candidacy.”
Under state law, the commission considers petitions to list species in a two-step process. In the first step, the Department of Fish and Game issues a report evaluating the petition and recommending whether the commission should the accept the petition for further study. The commission must accept the petition if it, along with the department’s report and additional evidence received, indicates that listing “may be warranted.” If the petition is accepted, the species is designated as a “Candidate” and the department conducts a 12-month status review to determine whether listing “is warranted.” At the end of the 12-month review, the department issues a second report to the commission and the commission votes as to whether listing “is warranted.” During the Candidacy period, the species receives the same protection as a species listed as Threatened or Endangered.
Judge Connelly ordered the commission to accept the petition, which will initiate the full status review and the second stage of the listing process. The decision states:
The court will order the issuance of a peremptory writ of mandate requiring the Commission to set aside its decision rejecting the Center’s 2004 petition to list the CTS and to enter a new decision accepting the petition for consideration pursuant to Fish and Game Code section 2074.2, subdivision (a)(2). There is no need or place for the Commission’s reconsideration of the petition because no competent scientific evidence, let alone substantial evidence, in the administrative record supports a rejection of the petition; rather all competent scientific evidence in the record supports a finding of a substantial possibility that CTS listing could occur. Thus the record . . .requires acceptance of the petition as a matter of law.
“The three commissioners who voted to reject the petition ignored the science, and instead cast their votes based on political expediency,” said Kassie Siegel, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the 2004 Petition. “This decision sets an important precedent that these political appointees will be held accountable for following the law and providing California’s imperiled wildlife with the important protections it needs and deserves.”
In a process that has spanned over a decade and has itself included several lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has protected the California Tiger Salamander under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Service listed California Tiger Salamander populations in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties as “endangered” on an emergency basis in 2002 and 2000, respectively, and California Tiger Salamanders populations in Central California as “threatened” in 2004.
The Center for Biological Diversity has approximately 25,000 members nationwide and is dedicated to the preservation of native species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.
Further information regarding the California Tiger Salamander is available online at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/ctigersal.html.