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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Saving Salamanders

Air Date: Week of

In Texas, a rare salamander is threatened with extinction but is caught between federal and state regulations for protection. Janet Heimlich reports from Barton Springs in Austin, Texas.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Deep in the heart of the Texas hill country, it's a university town known for great music, good cuisine, and some of the nation's best swimming holes. One of them is Barton Springs, not far from downtown, and a favorite gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. But Barton Springs is now at the center of a raging debate over the survival of a tiny salamander and a controversial effort by the Clinton Administration to give states more control over endangered species protection. From Austin, Janet Heimlich has our report.

(Splashing water. Woman: "No place like it in the world. It's great. You can't beat it." Man: "Yeah. I got time when I get out.")

HEIMLICH: Even in chilling 35-degree weather, Austin residents strip down to swim laps in Barton Springs pool. The pool, which is fed by underground springs, maintains a constant temperature of 68 degrees. On this winter afternoon, David Norrin pulls himself from the steaming water, quickly grabs for a towel, and then explains why he's been swimming here for over 10 years.

NORRIN: I like the fact the water's not chlorinated and there's stuff growing in it. You know, you can watch the fish and you can watch the plants and the turtles and it's just beautiful.

HEIMLICH: Burton Pool is special for another reason: it's home to the Eurycea sosorum, a salamander which exists nowhere else in the world. The tiny amphibian, known as the Barton Spring salamander, is about 2 inches long with bright red gills and delicate spiny legs.

(Air through a tube)

HEIMLICH: Downstream from the swimmers, biologist Robert Hansen pulls on a wetsuit and straps on a tank. He's getting ready for his monthly dive to count the salamanders: part of the city's conservation program.

(A large splash)

HANSEN: Well, to find these guys, usually you have to pick up rocks, and you have spaces in between the rocks, and they hunker down and crawl around in there. Occasionally you see them laying out on the surface, and occasionally you find them swimming through the surface. But they're usually underneath the cobble and the gravel.

HEIMLICH: By the end of the 4-hour dive, Hansen has uncovered only 14 salamanders. The low count isn't surprising. While it's not known how many salamanders now live in Barton Springs, surveys over the last couple of years have reported no more than 45. Given the low numbers, the Clinton Administration proposed to list the salamander as an endangered species. But when the time to act, interior secretary Bruce Babbitt unexpectedly withdrew the proposal. Instead, he decided to let the state of Texas take on the responsibilities. US Fish and Wildlife spokesman Dan Ashe.

ASHE: The bottom line is not putting a species on a list. The bottom line is conserving the species. And sometimes states are better able to do that than we are.

HEIMLICH: The Barton Springs salamander, he says, is a case in point.

ASHE: Looking at the state of Texas by way of example, they regulate water quality in the state of Texas. We don't. And so if we can sign an agreement with the state of Texas whereby they're agreeing to use their tools, there is a great amount of efficiency in that process.

HEIMLICH: The conservation agreement establishes a captive breeding program and enacts tighter water policy rules. But local environmentalists say the Federal-state deal has more to do with politics than protecting the salamander. They point out that the Clinton Administration's decision came during an election year with Texas up for grabs. They're critical of the plan for failing to broadly enforce water regulations, and allowing development to continue in sensitive areas.

KIRKPATRICK: This flies in the face of a mountain of scientific evidence showing that the salamander is in fact endangered...

HEIMLICH: University of Texas zoologist Mark Kirkpatrick, who first petitioned to list the salamander, says the Administration chose to ignore the plan's obvious flaws.

KIRKPATRICK: ... and there were no new additional protections required by the conservation plan to protect water quality and quantity of Barton Springs or to protect the salamander.

(Construction trucks)

HEIMLICH: One of the biggest threats to water quality is rainwater runoff from construction sites. A few miles upstream of the springs, work is underway to build highways, housing subdivisions, and shopping centers. Developers, backed by Governor George Bush, lobbied hard to prevent the listing, fearing that it would tighten restrictions on land use. Developers we contacted were reluctant to comment, but Alan Glen, an Austin lawyer for many of the commercial land owners, says it's in the developer's interest to protect the environment.

GLEN: Austin is known for its natural resources and that's part of the attraction to people who live here, who move here, and to people who my clients sell homes to. So there's a motivation there to maintain these resources.

HEIMLICH: Glen emphasizes that developers routinely put in retention ponds and other safeguards to control runoff. He accuses some environmentalists of using the Endangered Species Act as a tool to stop all development. But environmentalists say it's their only recourse to protect the springs, which provide drinking water to 40,000 people. Bill Bunch, a lawyer for Austin's Save Our Springs Alliance, says the state's record on environmental protection isn't good. The state legislature recently passed a law to allow some large developers to avoid strict local water ordinances.

BUNCH: The state of Texas has been going backwards on protecting the environment. There's simply no law other than the Endangered Species Act that will provide the protection that is needed to protect the salamander and the water quality of the springs.

HEIMLICH: But as the battle ensues, salamanders are dying. On recent surveys, biologists discovered a total of 28 dead salamanders. It turned out the city's maintenance crews were to blame. They'd been lowering the water level in Barton Pool to clean it, killing salamanders left stranded in a nearby spring. Now environmentalists are pushing even harder for Federal protections. Scott Royder with the Sierra Club says while he's open to the idea of state agreements, it's too early to abandon the Endangered Species Act entirely.

ROYDER: The Sierra Club Lone Star chapter has encouraged the cooperation between state and Federal agencies and ensuring that endangered species or endangered resources are protected and preserved and recovered. But we don't believe it should be done in lieu of listing as an endangered species, especially if that species is in trouble.

HEIMLICH: But the Clinton Administration doesn't see it that way. In fact, it wants to move away from listing species whenever possible. Dan Ashe of Fish and Wildlife says in cases like the salamander, a Federal listing is a last resort.

ASHE: More and more lately, we've been willing to sit down with states and say, you know, in some cases if we can have a frank discussion about what the threats are to the species and we can figure out ways to address the threats and conserve the species and not have to list them under the Endangered Species Act.

HEIMLICH: Environmentalists in Austin, however, are determined to get Federal protection for the Barton Springs salamander. They've filed suit in Federal court asking a judge to order the government to add it to the Endangered Species List. Meanwhile, the Clinton Administration is moving forward on its efforts to give states more control. It's already withdrawn endangered species listing proposals in Utah and Arizona, and is currently drawing up new conservation agreements in other states. For Living on Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Austin.



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