Kangaroo rats defeat homeowners in a court battle

Sep 3 2010 - 6:03pm

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Small, seed-eating kangaroo rats are safe on the endangered species list, living the good life here on a 41,000-acre reserve in Riverside County.

Outsiders might think these big-eyed, hopping rats are adorable, but they don't have them in the neighborhood.

For 15 years property owners have petitioned to remove the kangaroo rats from government protection without any luck. They tried again recently, but the federal government issued a final answer: No.

Despite efforts to protect them, populations of the kangaroo rats are declining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded.

Recent surveys determined that invasive grasses from suburban landscapes are shrinking the rat populations, even in protected areas. The invading plants make it more difficult for the animals to forage for seeds and dig burrows for shelter, said Jane Hendron, a wildlife agency spokeswoman based in Carlsbad, Calif.

In addition, robust populations of the animal in San Diego County are threatened by planned housing development, she said.

The Aug. 18 decision was bad news to developers and property owners who have been coping with rat protections for more than two decades. The rat favors habitat that is prime for building -- flat, open areas.

The kangaroo rat's historic range included most of western Riverside County and parts of northern and central San Diego County, but much of its habitat was developed into housing tracts and shopping centers as Southern California grew eastward. It was listed as an endangered species in 1988.

The listing, which jeopardized or delayed residential and commercial development on about 22,000 acres, triggered an outcry and became the bane of developers in western Riverside County.

In 1995, the Riverside Farm Bureau and other property-owner groups petitioned the wildlife service to de-list the animal, arguing that scientific data showed the animal was doing well and should not have been listed in the first place, said Damien Schiff, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents the Farm Bureau.

The petition languished, and the bureau sued Fish and Wildlife last year, saying the agency repeatedly had missed deadlines to respond.

Fish and Wildlife took the wrong approach by not re-examining the data and reasoning for listing the rat in 1988, he said. The agency overstated the animal's decline, Schiff said.

"The rat's numbers are large, and its habitat is good and plentiful," he added.

The Farm Bureau had not decided whether to challenge the decision in federal court, he said.

In any case, protecting the rat endangers jobs and the economy by restricting productive land use, Schiff said.

Borre Winckel, president of San Diego County Building Industry Association, said he was not surprised. Waiting 15 years to respond to the petition was in itself a decision to keep the animal on the endangered list, he said.

"We can't be more impacted, because we are already impacted," said Winckel, former head of the Riverside County builders' association. "They never wanted to deal with it anyway."

A representative of one of the environmental groups that has monitored the kangaroo rats said Fish and Wildlife could not have made any other decision.

Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the rat has continued to lose habitat since it was listed as endangered 22 years ago.

"There is less habitat now than when the species was listed," Anderson said. "So it is unimaginable that they would make any other decision than to keep it under Endangered Species Act protections."

Gail Barton, the agency's principal planner, said the invasive grasses are a big problem because they create thick vegetation; kangaroo rats need sparse areas that give them space to dig into dirt where plants leave the seeds they eat. One management strategy is to allow controlled sheep grazing to keep the grasses more sparse, she said.

Stephens' kangaroo rats have relatively large heads with large cheek pouches that they use to transport seeds to safe caches. Their name stems from their elongated hind legs used for jumping.

The Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency manages more than 41,000 acres of kangaroo rat reserves assembled since the animal was listed.

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