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Texas Endangered Species Policy, Part II: Salamander Wars

In the high-dollar real estate, suburban sprawl-dominated hill country just west of Austin, Texas live two, tiny, spring-dwelling salamanders, the Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sosoensis) and Jollyville Plateau Salamander (Eurycea sp.).(1) The Barton Springs Salamander survives only at Barton Springs Swimming Pool, Austin's ultra-popular spring-fed swimming hole. The Jollyville Plateau Salamander has a slightly larger distribution in northwestern Travis Co. and adjacent parts of southern Williamson Co. Both species depend on clean water and this makes them vulnerable to spills of toxic substances and polluted run-off from suburban lawns and roadways. This also makes them important early warning indicators of water quality problems of potential concern to human health.(2)

Letting Texas Realtors Run Texas Watersheds

Governor Bush's role in Austin salamander and water quality controversies discloses the true meaning of his campaign slogan, "Let Texans Run Texas." During his first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, he opposed efforts to give Barton Springs an "outstanding natural resource waters" designation that would have increased protections for water quality at this popular spring-fed swimming pool.(3) In 1995 he supported passage of legislation designed to thwart an Austin citizens' initiative and other ordinances designed to protect water quality and endangered species in Barton Creek and the Barton Springs Swimming Pool.(4) Lobbyists representing a variety of pro-property rights and real estate groups supported this legislation while also contributing $1,350,279 to Governor Bush's gubernatorial campaigns.(5) The Austin citizens' initiative would have increased restrictions on real estate developments planned for the Barton Creek watershed and Barton Springs recharge zone.

"Sound Science" or Political Pseudoscience

In January 1992, Dr. Mark Kirkpatrick and Barbara Mahler of the University of Texas submitted a petition to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the Barton Springs Salamander as Endangered.(6) Two years later, in February 1994, FWS published a formal listing proposal for this species. This triggered efforts by Governor Bush to pressure Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, to delay listing this species as Endangered until further studies were completed.

In July 1995, Governor Bush ridiculed environmentalists' concerns in a press release while claiming that 18 years of TNRCC water quality data showed no decline in water quality at Barton Springs and therefore no need to list the salamander as endangered:

"There are going to be some people in Austin who don't like that answer. We'll make decisions based upon science, not some hysterical read by a well-meaning citizen."(7)

The Governor's press release conveniently omitted mention of a series of United States Geological Survey studies summarized in the original listing petition and proposed rule.(8) These studies clearly identified threats to Barton Springs, its salamanders and human swimmers, from above-normal concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria; various heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury; pesticides and herbicides; and at least one synthetic carcinogen. Mark Jordan, head of the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) Water Policy and Regulations Division argued that despite these findings, "conclusive data on the threats to the species . . . does [do] not exist".(9) TNRCC's website currently contains swimmers' advisories for Barton Creek because of contamination by fecal coliform bacteria and heavy metals.

TPWD Fouls ABAT's Waters

In response to the growing controversy about the salamander, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) created an advisory committee called the Aquatic Biological Advisory Team (the ABAT) to evaluate the status of the Barton Springs Salamander. A June 1996 letter from Larry McKinney, Director of TPWD's Resource Protection Division, to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service summarized the performance of this advisory committee and used its recommendations to propose further studies and a non-binding Candidate Species Conservation Agreement in lieu of formal listing as endangered.(10) McKinney's letter described the Aquatic Biological Advisory Team as his department's ". . . first effort to develop an independent peer review process to address endangered species issues . . . Every effort was made to maintain the independence of the ABAT yet provide them with all the available information".

Not mentioned by McKinney were complaints from the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund (copied to McKinney) that challenged the purity of the ABAT process.(11)

"When the ABAT process was launched, we were told by TPWD officials that they only wanted academics from outside the area and with no financial interest or other bias to be involved. They said the same thing about the persons allowed to present information to the ABAT. This fierce commitment to neutrality, however, was never followed. Instead development interests were well represented while both knowledgeable scientists and conservationists were excluded from the process. In addition, important information was screened out and kept away from the ABAT."

The SOS letter noted the following specific problems that disclose the extent to which TPWD orchestrated the process to create opposition to the listing of the salamander:

  1. At least one ABAT member had financial ties to real estate development interests.

  2. TPWD allowed the ABAT to hear testimony from the development community and specific developers, while blocking testimony from pro-listing conservationists and various scientists including the original listing petitioners.

  3. TPWD altered videotapes submitted as evidence to the ABAT.

  4. While TPWD delayed public access to copies of ABAT members' individual final reports, Governor Bush and TPWD's Executive Director, Andy Sansom simultaneously claimed there was inadequate scientific data to support listing of the species. (Note: release of the ABAT members' reports finally occurred in September 1995, shortly after the SOS complaint in August).(12)

Scientist Violates Secrete "Sensitive Document Review Procedure"

Behind the scenes, TPWD's Resource Protection Division attempted to block distribution of one salamander status report then being prepared by the Texas Natural Heritage Program.(13) This report provided an exhaustive review of threats from urbanization and direct degradation of historical spring sites. It also identified inadequacies of existing regulations for protecting salamanders and water quality in the face of rapid urban expansion. Finally, the report predicted that in the absence of "proactive conservation planning", extinction of the Jollyville Plateau Salamander would occur by 2020. The level of certainty of these predictions conflicted with TPWD's official view that all listings should be delayed to ". . . allow time to better ascertain the status of biological issues".(14)

The author of this report, Natural Heritage Program Zoologist Dr. Andy Price circulated a January 1995 draft for review to his coworkers within TPWD's Endangered Resources Branch and also to his colleagues outside TPWD. Shortly thereafter, Endangered Resources Aquatic Biologist David Bowles circulated copies to the ABAT. In response, TPWD Endangered Resources Branch Chief, Gary Graham, took disciplinary action against Price for violating an unwritten branch policy termed the "Sensitive Document Review Procedure".(15) Graham's memo also chastised Price for raising concerns to Fish and Wildlife biologists about threats to the Endangered Houston Toad posed by TPWD projects proposed for Bastrop State Park.(16) In a related memo Graham held Price's direct supervisor and Leader of the Texas Natural Heritage Program, David Diamond, personally accountable for the behavior of Price and other natural heritage program staff, while also accusing Diamond of violating the sensitive document review procedure by submitting for publication a scientific paper deemed too controversial by Graham.(17)

Ultimately, Graham saddled Price with six months of informal disciplinary probation.(18) This veritable gag order required Price to seek supervisory approval for any material that could "question or influence state, federal, or departmental policy, . . . federal or state species listing" or "changes in land use practices to conserve rare species". In the months following the disciplinary action, TPWD began receiving letters of support for Dr. Price. One letter contained a telling comment:(19)

"If he violated some policy for being a scientist, then we are guilty of this. As a scientist, it is our job to report the facts".

In response, Dr. Price requested a formal Management Review of Graham's actions, one of several ongoing at the same time.(20) Larry McKinney conducted this review and supported Graham's actions while also admitting that ". . . there exists no internal written policy guidelines on this matter". Undeterred by his own admission, McKinney lashed out at Price for being "disrespectful of the department and its procedures" and for again violating the non-existent Sensitive Document Review Procedure by telling colleagues and friends outside of TPWD about his predicament".(21)

State Heel-Dragging Triggers Lawsuit

In 1995, three years after filing the original listing petition, Dr. Kirkpatrick and Barbara Mahler sued the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, to force a decision on the listing of the salamander. The resulting court order issued in November 1995 gave Secretary Babbitt until August 30, 1996 to make a decision about the status of the salamander. (22) In June, however, representatives from Texas and the Department of the Interior had begun secret discussions about the possibility of creating a Conservation Agreement for the species in lieu of giving it formal federal Endangered status. Faced with the August 30th. deadline, the Secretary decided to support the Conservation Agreement, and withdrew the proposal to list the species as endangered.(23) TPWD, Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed the agreement.

David Bowles of TPWD was selected to head the Barton Springs Salamander Conservation Team (BSSCT) to decide how to implement the Conservation Agreement. This appointment triggered a thinly-veiled threat from real estate developer Gary Bradley to take punitive action during the next legislative session unless TPWD replaced Bowles with Gary Graham or Larry McKinney. Bradley justified his concerns with the following commentary on Bowles' role in the advisory team meetings :(24)

". . . his previous actions would suggest that he very much favored the listing of the salamander and considered landowner scientific commentary to be an "opposing view". . .

"there is a great deal of opposition to David Bowles' selection due to the position he expressed at the ABAT meeting and other factors, warranted or not. This opposition is well organized, focused, and is unlikely to go away. I am not sure what form this opposition will ultimately take and it may not manifest itself until the next session" . . .

"I am confident that Larry McKinney, Gary Graham, or possibly some other individual at Parks arid Wildlife having the requisite regulator and policy background and seniority; could do an outstanding in this role and enjoy the support of both the environmental and development communities".

Perhaps out of concern for maintaining some appearance of legitimacy, TPWD left Bowles in charge.

No Proven Track Record

Larry McKinney, in a letter to the Austin American Statesman, defended creation of the Conservation Agreement by claiming the federal listing could do no more than the state-sponsored conservation plan.(25) Despite this opinion, the Barton Springs Salamander Conservation Team was terminated in March 1997 when a federal court discovered the superficial nature of the Conservation Agreement and found it deficient as a means to protect the salamander from extinction.(26) The court found that (1) TPWD had failed to give the salamander state endangered status; (2) existing state statutes were inadequate to insure long-term water quality protection; (3) regulations did not exist for minimizing risks of toxic waste spills; (4) no provisions had been made for devices for capturing pollutants contained in roadway run-off; (5) state restrictions existed that limited the applicability of Austin municipal water quality regulations to extraterritorial portions of Austin watersheds; (6) there was no legally enforceable means for changing City of Austin's destructive management of Barton Springs Swimming pool; and (7) there was no regulatory authority for insuring a continued supply of groundwater from the aquifer supplying Barton Springs. Instead the Conservation Agreement offered only to identify problems, review existing laws, implement studies, and develop protocols.

The Court ruling also pointed out that the timing of initiation of the Conservation Agreement, had also blocked public review of the agreement. Most significantly, the Court found that strong political pressure had been used to force withdrawal of the proposed listing and that "intense opposition to the listing" had come from the various sources including the State of Texas and developer interests. In particular, Governor Bush had written Secretary Babbit to express concerns about the potential of the listing ". . . to impact the use of private property".(27)

In response to the decision to list the Barton Springs Salamander as Endangered, Governor Bush accused the federal government of breach of trust, and claimed that "Texans will have a hard time trusting a federal government that makes an agreement then turns right around and breaks it,".(28) The governor said nothing about Texans also having a hard time trusting a state government that suppresses important scientific data and harasses honest scientists.

Jollyville Salamanders: Deformed but Not Forgotten

Meanwhile little to nothing was being done to protect the Jollyville Plateau Salamander. A species not even petitioned for listing despite being faced with similar problems of a limited geographic distribution coincident with ongoing explosive suburban sprawl to the northwest of Austin. Release of a draft City of Austin Report in October 1999 changed this somewhat. This report found reduced numbers of salamanders and dead and deformed salamanders in watersheds degraded by real estate developments. The study also found significant contamination of urban salamander sites by pesticides (DDT, Chlordane and Dieldrin), hexachlorobenzine, and cadmium, and expressed concern about toxic effects of swimming pool chlorine and dieldrin on local salamander populations. Perhaps, not coincidentally, TPWD finally got around to releasing a final version of Andy Price's controversial report one month after release of the City of Austin report and almost 5 years after Price's controversial attempt to have the document reviewed by his peers. Not deterred by past experiences with the Arkansas River Shiner and Barton Springs Salamanders, TPWD, TNRCC, City of Austin, have once again initiated a developer-friendly Candidate Conservation Agreement, for a species whose imminent extinction Dr. Price forecast in his 1995 status report. Continued delays in instituting constructive protective measures for salamanders and other Austin area endangered species recently generated a notice of intent to sue FWS for its failure to enforce restrictions against endangered species habitat destruction in the Barton Creek watershed.(29)

Copies of Public Information Request documents listed in the source cites below may be obtained by contacting Texas PEER. Those documents are identified as image names within []. The images may be downloaded to your computer for viewing from the image name links below. The image files average about 110,000 kb.

  1. Bockstanz, Lori M. and David C. Cannatella. 2000. Herps of Texas.
  2. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. April 30, 1997. Final Rule to List the Barton Springs Salamander as Endangered. Federal Register 62(83): 23377-23392.
  3. Austin American Statesman. July 7, 1995. Bush ecology policy takes shape. Austin American Statesman: Newspapers and Newswires. p. A1
  4. Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 1999. "Local Control" -- Texas Style, Part I in Toxic Texas The Environmental Legacy of Governor George W. Bush.
  5. Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 1999. "Local Control"- Texas Style, Part II: Special Favors for Special Interests in Toxic Texas The Environmental Legacy of Governor George W. Bush
  6. Kirkpatrick, Mark and B. Mahler. January 22, 1992. Petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing of the Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sp.) as an Endangered Species and the designation of its critical habitat.; and Beattie, M.H. 1994. Proposal to list the Barton Springs Salamander as Endangered. Federal Register 59(33):7968-7078.
  7. Haurwitz, R. 1995. Bush opposes salamander protection. Austin American Statesman (July 26, 1995): A9.
  8. Texas Water Commission. 1991-1990 update to the nonpoint source water pollution assessment report for the State of Texas; Slade, R.M. et al. 1979-84. Hydrologic data for urban studies in the Austin, Texas metropolitan area. U.S. Geological Survey Open-file Reports 80-728, 81-628, 86-4036, 82-506, 79-271, 83-44, and 84-061; Choffel, K.L. et al. 1977. Hydrologic data for urban studies in the Austin, Texas metropolitan area, 1975. U.S.G.S. Open File Report 76-885; Veenhuis, J.E and R.M. Slade 1990. Relation between urbanization and water quality in streams of the Austin area, Texas. U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 90-4107; and Buzka, P.M. and R.M. Slade. 1991. Determination of the sources of organic compounds in ground-water discharge of Barton Springs, Austin, Texas. U.S. Geological Survey internal proposal (April 10, 1991).
  9. June 19, 1995 letter from Mark Jordan, Director, TNRCC Water Policy and Regulations Division, to Myron J. Hess, Attorney at Law.
  10. June 25, 1996 letter from Larry McKinney, Director, TPWD Resource Protection Division to Steve Helfert, Department of the Interior. [LKMFWS1, LKMFWS2, LKMFWS3]
  11. Letter of August 10, 1995 from William G. Bunch, Chief Legal Council of Save our Springs Legal Defense Fund to Aquatic Biological Advisory Team Members [BUNCH1, BUNCH2, BUNCH3, BUNCH4]; and R. Bryce. August 18, 1995. Salamander Tales. Austin Chronicle p. 26.
  12. Bowles, D.E., ed. Sept. 20, 1995. A review of the status of current critical biological and ecological information on the Eurycea salamanders located in Travis Co., Texas. Unpublished report of the Aquatic Biology Advisory Team, Texas Parks and Wildife Department, Austin.
  13. Price, A., P. Chippendale and D.M. Hillis. May 1995. A status report on the threats facing populations of Perennibranchiate Hemidactylline Plethodonid salamanders of the genus Eurycea north of the Colorado River in Texas. Draft Final Section 6 Report, Part III.
  14. March 1, 1995 letter written by Larry McKinney, Director, TPWD's Resource Protection Division for Andy Sansom, Executive Director, TPWD to Sam Hamilton, State Administrator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [SANSOM1, SANSOM2]
  15. March 14, 1995 memorandum from Gary Graham, Chief, TPWD Endangered Resources Branch to Dr. Andy Price, Zoologist, Texas Natural Heritage Program. [VIOLATE1, VIOLATE2, VIOLATE3]
  16. Robert Bryce. August 18, 1995. Salamander Tales: To Protect Toads or Build Back Nine? Golf of Course. Austin Chronicle 14(50).
  17. February 28, 1995 memorandum from Gary Graham, Chief TPWD Endangered Resources Branch to Dr. David Diamond, Leader, Texas Natural Heritage Program [VIOLATE4, VIOLATE6]; and D.D. Diamond, G.A. Rowell, and D.P. Keddy-Hector. 1995. Conservation of Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei Buchholz) woodlands of the Central Texas Hill Country. Natural Areas Journal 15:189-197.
  18. March 14, 1995 memorandum from Gary Graham, Chief, TPWD Endangered Resources Branch to Andy Price, Zoologist, Texas Natural Heritage Program. [PRICE1, PRICE2, PRICE3]
  19. 30 March 1995 letter from Dr. James Dixon, Professor, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University to Andrew Sansom, Executive Director, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. [DIXON].
  20. April 14, 1995 memorandum from Larry McKinney, Director TPWD Resource Protection Division to Andy Sansom, Executive Director, TPWD. [LKMREV]
  21. Larry McKinney. October 27, 1995. Management Review of Disciplinary Action taken by Endangered Resources Branch Chief regarding Dr. Andy Price. Contained in: Administrative Inquiry 95-005 Concerning actions on communication with two USFWS employees, completion of certain government reports, and personal conduct of Gary Graham (RP). Date of Assignment: January 30, 1995. Date of Completion: December 5, 1995. [REVIEW1, REVIEW2, REVIEW3]
  22. Save our Springs Legal Defense Fund vs. Babbitt, MO-95-CA-230 (SOS I").
  23. Helfert, Stephen C., Field Supervisor, U.S.F.W.S, Ecological Services Field Office (Austin). September 19, 1996. Notification of Withdrawal to list Barton Springs Salamander. [HELFCCA]
  24. Bryce, Robert. February 28, 1997. Bradley's Blackball. Austin Chronicle 16 (26).
  25. Larry D. McKinney. Dec. 14, 1996. Let Texans Protect Texas. Austin American Statesman. http://archives.statesman.com/
  26. L.D. Bunton, III. Senior U.S. District Judge. March 25, 1997 Ruling: Save Our Springs, et al. v. Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior (MO-96-CA-168). United States District Court for the Western District of Texas Midland-Odessa Division.
  27. February 14, 1995 letter from George W. Bush, Governor of the State of Texas to Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. [BUSH1]
  28. April 22, 1997 press release from Office of the Governor, George W. Bush. Federal Government Flip Flops; Refuses to Support Conservation Agreement for Salamander.
  29. September 9, 1999 Notice of Endangered Species Act Violations and Notice of Intent to Sue Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. [SOS1, SOS2, SOS3, SOS4]

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