High cost to protect elderberry bushes threatens levees

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A property-rights lawyer says that taking the valley elderberry longhorn beetle off the federal "threatened" list could save farms and ranches from flooding.

Damien Schiff, senior staff attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, says levee districts that encounter the beetle in elderberry bushes sometimes must spend as much as $150,000 to remove one bush.

"You could imagine that for a levee district that has 40 miles of levee it has to maintain, if it has to spend that much just to mitigate for one bush it will not have much money left in its budget to do any maintenance," said Schiff, who is based in Sacramento.

The foundation filed suit April 8 on behalf of a coalition of farm and other groups to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the beetle from protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The groups -- which include two levee management districts, Farm Bureaus in Butte, Yolo and Solano counties and the North Sacramento Land Co. -- point to a 2006 review by Fish and Wildlife scientists that found the beetle's population had recovered and it could be de-listed.

Sarah Swenty, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Sacramento, said a draft document on the beetle's status is under internal review. She said it will eventually be put out for public comment and a final determination will be made, though she didn't say when.

"A draft document generally goes back and forth between offices to make sure every issue is being covered appropriately," Swenty said.

The foundation's lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court in Sacramento to order the agency to begin the process. The organization argues severe land-use restrictions have been imposed on property owners whose land is habitat for the beetle.

For farmers and ranchers, the biggest concern is the threat of flooding if managers cannot adequately maintain levees, Schiff said. The beetle isn't likely to be found in the middle of a field but is common in elderberry bushes along the banks of the Sacramento and American rivers, he said.

"We think the lawsuit is important for the property and human health and safety issues," Schiff said. "It's also just a matter of good government. It's time to free the beetle and free the taxpayer."

Online

Pacific Legal Foundation: www.pacificlegal.org

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: www.fws.gov

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