Area is home to California tiger salamander
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ventura office alleges the Santa Maria Public Airport District destroyed the habitat of the endangered California tiger salamander.
The Service sent the airport a letter dated Aug. 13 hoping to meet and resolve the issue “without proceeding to civil or criminal prosecution.”
The letter accuses the airport of damaging a pond that has been the site of California tiger salamander breeding for nearly 20 years and gutting approximately 110 acres of upland habitat.
The Service learned about the alleged destruction during the airport’s incidental take permit process for the construction of the Santa Maria Airport Commercial Center Project.
An incidental take permit allows entities to proceed with activities, such as construction, that may harm an endangered or threatened species. But applicants must also submit a habitat conservation plan to mitigate the damage.
The Santa Maria Public Airport District submitted a habitat conservation plan as part of an incidental take permit on Jan. 6. The plan acknowledged the presence of the breeding pond and surrounding habitat.
The Jan. 6 application showed the pond, known as SAMA-10, and habitat were intact at the time of submission.
The Service reviewed the incidental take application on May 3 and accessed aerial imagery that showed the destruction of the pond and land.
The letter says the airport manager (who is not identified by name) told the Service that the airport had “approved expansion of agricultural operations in the area in summer of 2020, and the habitat conversion occurred in early 2020.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement is investigating whether the airport violated the Endangered Species Act.
The Service halted the processing of the incidental take permit.
“Take of a listed species is a violation of the Endangered Species Act and could result in an applicant’s disqualification to receive or exercise the privileges of an incidental take permit in the future,” Rachel Henry, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, told the News-Press.
When asked about potential delays to construction, Santa Maria Airport General Manager Chris Hastert said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation is “not causing us issues yet.”
He has reached out to schedule a meeting time with the Service and did not feel comfortable giving further comment until after he learns more from the Service.
“Our goal is to work with the Santa Maria Public Airport to find creative and meaningful solutions to balance economic interests for the community of Santa Maria, while ensuring California tiger salamanders remain part of this working landscape,” Ms. Henry said.
She couldn’t provide case specifics while the investigation is open.
California tiger salamanders in Santa Barbara County were categorized as endangered in 2000 under the Endangered Species Act.
The majority of documented California tiger salamanders in Santa Barbara County live on private land in the northern part of the county.
These amphibians have round wide-set eyes and a broad, rounded snout. They appear to have a soft smile.
Their backs are black with yellowish dots. Their size can range from six to 10.5 inches in length.
The California tiger salamander’s biggest threat is the loss of habitat from urban development and farming.