Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Portions of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties may be included in federally-mandated recovery plans for the endangered California tiger salamander come 2017.

The designation of vast swaths of Central California for efforts to boost the species' dwindling numbers come as a result of a settlement reached earlier this month in an eight-month-old lawsuit.

The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April on the basis that federal agencies were not doing enough to protect the salamander considered threatened by extinction under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act.

"I'm so glad these … populations of the beautiful, severely endangered California tiger salamander will finally get recovery plans," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney who focuses on amphibian and reptile conservation issues for the Center. "Timely development of these plans is absolutely necessary, because they give us a roadmap of the actions needed to ensure the species will survive."

Requirements to mitigate for impacts on tiger salamander habitat have been a sticking point for numerous developments in western Calaveras County in recent years. Much of the land surrounding Copperopolis and Valley Springs is considered prime territory for the tiny amphibian.

Delays in clearing Cosgrove Creek to prevent flooding, denial of the Trinitas development near Wallace, the delays and scuttling of several residential and commercial projects in Valley Springs and complications in planning the Wagon Trail realignment of Highway 4 between Angels Camp and Copperopolis have all been blamed on salamander considerations.

The Twain Harte-based environmental nonprofit Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center also raised concerns about salamander habitat before an agreement was reached to allow the Cooperstown quarry project in western Tuolumne County to move forward.

Low-lying elevations found on the western ends of each county bordering on the Central Valley are considered as habitat areas for the California tiger salamander. The affected area of Tuolumne County, however, has been less impacted to this point because of few plans to develop the sparsely populated region of the county.

Recovery plans may include designation of critical habitat areas for its recovery. That became a hot-button issue in the Valley Springs area about three years ago when the Fish and Wildlife Service took that step to protect the endangered California red-legged frog in areas mostly surrounding Paloma.

Such a designation places some restrictions on landowners, which upset numerous ranchers who pointed to the agency's own studies that showed ranching as a beneficial activity for both the frogs and salamanders.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the tiger salamander population numbers about 10,000 and is on the decline.

"Wherever they may turn up somewhere in scattered numbers, obviously, it's important to protect them," said CSERC Executive Director John Buckley.

Castle and Cooke Calaveras Vice President Dave Haley has been engaged in a heated battle with county planners the latter half of this year to gain approval for a 580-home development called Sawmill Lake near the Copperopolis Town Square. One of the greatest concerns cited regarding the project is the planned removal of oak woodlands and reduction of other habitat that suits threatened species such as the salamander.

Haley said he sees the settlement as a possible stumbling block county planners and other government regulators may utilize to further hinder development plans.

"To me, people are the issue. It's important to recognize people's needs," Haley said. "You manage (potential habitat areas) as best you can but you don't sacrifice development."

He said he plans to provide written comments as an affected stakeholder to Fish and Wildlife as well as input at any public meetings scheduled in the development of the recovery plans but does not think much will come of it.

"Those (meetings) are a sham. I've been to so many of those things where they look at you … and don't really do anything," Haley said. "I (comment) and people do but it's quite a chore. The environmentalists have the upper hand right now."

"I support good planning for people while respecting the environment," he added, "but to put a tiger salamander or a red-legged frog as the superior species is just ridiculous."

The recovery plan will look first at protecting the salamander in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, with plans due by June 2016 and December 2016, respectively, to address those areas. The remainder of the Central California population is to be included in a plan by June 2017 as part of the agreement.