Fight to save Tahoe yellow cress goes to U.S. court |

Fight to save Tahoe yellow cress goes to U.S. court

Environmentalists have sued the Bush administration to protect three rare species including the Tahoe yellow cress under the Endangered Species Act.

The suit filed in Portland, Ore., federal court on Thursday said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to protect the Tahoe yellow cress plant, the sand dune lizard and the southern Idaho ground squirrel as endangered species.

The plaintiffs also allege the service is trying to sidestep the law by including the three as candidates for federal protection, a designation that can stall further consideration for a decade.

“It’s basically this legal limbo where they get no protection,” said Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which joined Western Watersheds Project, and Committee for the High Desert in filing the suit.

The Smithsonian Institute first sought protection for the Tahoe yellow cress in 1975. The plant lives only in a 7 foot zone from Lake Tahoe’s low water line to a foot above the high water mark, and has been hurt by lakeside development.

In fall 2002 a conservation strategy for protecting the plant was developed by Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Lakefront Owners Association. Since then, there have been at least three sites at the lake where the species has been reintroduced, said Gerald Dion, who was part of the vegetation program team at TRPA when the strategy was launched.

The charge to protect the plant began about two years ago. Botanists have collected data on the plant since 1978, but a silent alarm went off in 2000 when surveys showed Tahoe yellow cress was growing in only 27 percent of the areas it normally does.

California State Parks led work on a conservation strategy for the yellow cress until the TRPA took over as lead agency. By developing the strategy, the hope was to avoid the federal listing, which, if passed, would pose more regulation at Lake Tahoe.

Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the money to study all the potentially threatened species, in part because it is overwhelmed with lawsuits from environmentalists, said spokeswoman Jenny Valdivia.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “It would be great if we could get out of that, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen.”

The environmental groups dispute that explanation. The Interior Department estimated it needed $153 million to catch up with the backlog, but only requested about $9 million this year, Greenwald said.

In its first two years, the Bush administration listed 24 species for protection, compared to 211 species in the first two years of the Clinton administration and 80 species in the first two years of the first Bush administration. The environmental groups contend at least 34 species have become extinct while waiting for protection.

The sand dune lizard has the second smallest range of any lizard in North America, limited to dunes covered by low-growing oaks in southeastern New Mexico and western Texas.

The southern Idaho ground squirrel has a range limited to the low rolling hills of three counties in Southwestern Idaho.

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