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Fish and Wildlife rejects salamander protection

By STEVEN DUBOIS Seattle pi 1/24/08

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Two rare salamanders do not need Endangered Species Act protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.

The agency said neither species is threatened by habitat loss, and increased survey efforts are turning up more Siskiyou Mountains and Scott Bar salamanders.

"The perception of extreme rarity that's been sort of perpetuated is really not turning out to be the case," said Brian Woodbridge, a Fish and Wildlife biologist. "The more people are looking, the more people are finding them and the wider the variety of habitats that they are being found in."

The announcement comes one year after a federal judge ruled that the agency illegally rejected a petition to protect the salamanders and ordered the agency to reconsider.

Conservation groups criticized Thursday's decision, saying it continues a Bush administration pattern of using questionable science in environmental matters.

"It's not surprising, but it's disappointing," said Joseph Vaile, campaign director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. He said the agency leaned too heavily on science from a timber industry that wants to log the salamanders' habitat, which includes parts of the Klamath and Rogue River-Siskiyou national forests.

Said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity: "The Bush administration has become infamous for suppressing science to support resource extraction and this decision is no exception."

Woodbridge said he went into the study knowing there would be questions raised about the science, so he sought to ensure "a very rigorous evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the science."

Both salamanders are about five inches long, colored black with speckles. They have no lungs, instead breathing through their skin. They live on rocky slopes under the canopy of old-growth trees in the Siskiyou Mountains and Klamath River basin in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

Woodbridge said the overall number of salamanders is difficult to quantify because they are only found on the surface in wet conditions.

"In this fairly dry part of the world that is a very narrow window of time, when it's both rainy and not ice cold."

Conservation groups have spent years seeking increased protection for the salamanders. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the initial petition for lack of money.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center sued in August 2005, and in December 2005 the service agreed to reconsider.

In April 2006, the service concluded there was not enough scientific or commercial information in the petition to make a finding.

In July 2006, conservationists sued again, leading to the judge's order last January.

Vaile said conservation groups have yet to decide their next step.

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