Under program, incidental take of protected species not penalized
By TIM HEARDEN
Ranchers in four Northern California counties could get special relief from violations under the Endangered Species Act if they agree to make habitat improvements on their land.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments through Sept. 29 on a so-called "safe harbor agreement" involving private lands in Shasta, Tehama, Butte and Glenn counties.
The proposed agreement would benefit 20 species of protected wildlife by giving landowners incentives for undertaking management activities on their property that would enhance or restore habitat.
In return, the landowner would be protected from further restrictions on their lands and from fines and other penalties for the incidental taking of imperiled species, agency and cattlemen's representatives said.
A concurrent agreement involving state regulatory agencies is in the works, said Eric Holst, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Center for Conservation Incentives in Sacramento.
"The simple way to think of it is that if you augment the habitat for species, there's a certain amount of flexibility allowed if a species is damaged," Holst said. "It attempts to remove a disincentive in the Endangered Species Act."
Safe harbor agreements have been growing in popularity across the country, as ranchers who naturally undertake conservation measures to enhance their operations try to comply with sometimes restrictive environmental regulations.
As of Sept. 1, 399 landowners were enrolled in 78 safe harbor agreements in 22 states, with enrolled lands encompassing more than 4.3 million acres and 148 miles of stream, according to Michael Bean, counselor for the U.S. assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in Washington, D.C.
In Northern California alone, there are currently eight federal safe harbor agreements in place -- four with individual landowners and four with groups of landowners, said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Sacramento office.
Such arrangements involving blanket protection from incidental take violations aren't without controversy. Last winter, a state proposal to offer watershed-wide permits in two watersheds in Siskiyou County met with resistance from some farmers, who feared the voluntary program could open the door to more strict state controls over adjudicated water rights.
But that proposal was different from safe harbor agreements because it involved ongoing operations in the watershed rather than voluntary conservation efforts by ranchers, said Tracy Schohr, the California Cattlemen's Association's director of rangeland conservation.
Many farmers and ranchers undertake conservation measures to protect their soil and water so that their fields, pastures, streams and woodlots will remain productive. However, because vegetation tends to attract protected wildlife, some ranchers have decided to clear vegetation from their lands to avoid Endangered Species Act headaches.
Without a safe harbor agreement in place, landowners could have to apply for a permit to cut the stand of trees they planted or to drain the wetlands they created, the EDF explains on its website. Aside from agriculture, the agreements are also useful for other types of land uses, including resorts and residential and corporate properties, the organization asserts.
Under the agreement, a biologist will determine a baseline population of a specified species on a property, and as the owner enhances habitat, he or she isn't penalized for removing some of the habitat or for an incidental take as long as the baseline is maintained, Holst said.
Species covered under the proposed Northern California agreement include the California red-legged frog, the giant garter snake, the Swanson's hawk, the western yellow-billed cuckoo, the burrowing owl, the tricolored blackbird and the Sacramento Valley red fox.
This agreement is somewhat unique in that it involves a wide range of partners, including the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition and the California Department of Fish and Game, officials said.
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments on the proposed safe harbor agreement in Shasta, Tehama, Butte and Glenn counties should be addressed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rick Kuyper, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, 2800 Cottage Way, W-2605, Sacramento, CA 96825. Written comments may also be faxed to 916-414-6713. A map of the proposed permit area and other documents are available for review during normal business hours by calling Kuyper at 916-414-6000.