Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Development projects in the Mother Lode may have one less hurdle to clear if a federal agency decides to adopt a newly proposed rule that would remove the valley elderberry longhorn beetle from the endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday it has opened a 60-day public comment period regarding the proposal, which would remove the beetle from its current status as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"We want our decisions on the VELB's (valley elderberry longhorn beetle) status to be informed by the best available information," said Susan K. Moore, field supervisor for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, in a written statement.

A number of public and private projects in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have been held up over the years by concern for the insect's solitary host plant - the valley elderberry bush.

The issue delayed upgrades to Old Priest Grade in Groveland for more than two years, and both developers and public agencies alike have spent large amounts of money to offset the impact that projects may have on the protected bug and its habitat.

In April 2011, Calaveras County supervisors agreed to pay $12,500 for re-design work to avoid elderberry bushes on its new jail construction site. Developers of the Lowe's Home Improvement store in Sonora had to pay more than $40,000 to remove and transplant bushes from there.

Tuesday's announcement comes after a 12-month comprehensive study by the FWS to determine whether or not to propose the beetle for delisting.

A lawsuit filed in April 2011 by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of a coalition of California businesses, landowners, farmers and flood-control agencies prompted the FWS to hold a 60-day public comment period regarding its intention to conduct the study.

The PLF has cited a six-year-old FWS report that concluded the state had significantly more longhorn beetles than scientists thought in 1980 - when the beetle was listed as threatened - and suggested the species be de-listed.

When the beetle was classified as threatened, less than 10 sightings were recorded in three locations around the Central Valley. Since that time, there have been 201 valley elderberry longhorn beetle sightings in multiple counties from the Central Valley to the Sierra Nevada foothills.

"Today's announcement is good newsfor California's economy, for property rights, and for honesty and integrity in environmental regulations," said PLF principal attorney Damien Schiff in a written statement. "The beetle isn't endangered or threatened, so heavy-handed restrictions on landowners and businesses aren't needed in order to help the beetle."

Jim Todd, chief operating officer for Sonora-based California Gold Development Corp., the developer of the Lowe's store, said de-listing the elderberry beetle would be one less obstacle for a project in the area to overcome.

The added time it takes to review projects and issue permits in areas where protecting the habitats of threatened or endangered species is a concern that can discourage developers because any delay could have profound impacts on a project, Todd said.

"Businesses, especially when margins are slim, are going to takethe path of least resistance," he said. "If I can build in an area where I don't have to deal with a beetle or other wetland preservation issues, that's what I'm going to do."

Even some environmental groups are acknowledging the evidence for de-listing the beetle and supporting scientific studies to determine whether a protected status is necessary.

John Buckley, executive director for the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said science should be the deciding factor.

"We're sharing that the question of whether the beetle is truly endangered and at risk of being extirpated is one that needs to be answered by the best available science," he said. "Not by those promoting development or opposed to the mitigation efforts."

If the beetle ultimately stays listed, Buckley said, then the protection and mitigation measures should be examined, because the controversy they create can threaten the broader goal of preservation efforts.

"For something that has a relatively low-level of support, it creates problems for the Endangered Species Act when local governments have to spends tens of thousands of dollars to move one or two bushes on measures that may not even be important to the beetle," he said.