WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas -- Something so small is causing a big debate in Williamson County -- the Jollyville Plateau Salamander. It is one of the amphibians slated to be on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) Endangered Species List.
"We were petitioned by a couple of organizations to consider these species," said USFWS Field Supervisor for the Austin Ecological Services Field Office Adam Zerrenner.
"There are people who use the environmental species act as an attack tool to get what their view of the way they think things should be, and their view is no development," said U.S. Congressman John Carter (R-Round Rock).
According to Zerrenner, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Earth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the USFWS. They settled out of court, agreeing to have all species that are candidates for the endangered list considered, including the salamanders that have 93 habitats in southern Williamson and northern Travis Counties.
Carter and U.S. House Natural Resources Chairman, Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA) toured the Avery Ranch habitat Wednesday. The men had a simple question -- Are the salamanders endangered?
Williamson County hired environmental consultant and biologist Kemble White, Ph.D. He has studied the species for 10 years. White admits there is no concrete way to measure how many salamanders are in the area, but said biologist are closer to establishing standards, and while he doesn't have a crystal ball, he believes the salamanders are safe.
"What we've found here, as well as many other places in Williamson County, is that these populations seem to be stable. There's no sign that they're having any kind of trouble," said White.
"I'm a firm believer that the government that's closest to the people governs less, and the mere fact that they have development around here and yet you have what appears to be a robust salamander population means that due diligence is being given to the recovery of these species by the local officials," said Hastings.
Whether the salamander is added to the endangered species list, the spring in Avery Ranch is part of a protected greenbelt, so there won't be any additional development there. That's just one more reason why local leaders say officials should wait before they add the salamander to the list.
"Economically, it will be a disaster if they list the salamander and halt development," said Carter.
"Our intent is not to halt development," said Zerrenner. "If these species were listed, we would work very actively with the community as a partner to come up with ways to balance economic growth with the conservation of these species."
"Really what we're looking at are the threats from pollution, the degradation to water quality," Zerrenner added.
Those are threats Congressman Carter and other Williamson County leaders say don't exist.
"The argument is will the runoff from subdivisions, the activity of humans in the area, that those are what cause the habitat to degrade and ultimately kill off the salamander. Well the first thing we ought to know is how's that water test? [Biologist] tell me the test is close to perfect as it can get," said Carter.
That is why Carter insist adding salamanders to the list is part of a political game, and Hastings adds that a large number of the listings are challenged in court, and the entire process of adding species to an endangered list should be questioned.
"The Department of Interior can't tell us in an open committee how much they are spending on litigation, and it's huge; it's not recovering species," said Hastings. "Just to give you a ballpark figure, there are roughly 1,400 listed species since the Endangered Species Act went into effect. Now if the issue is recovery, one would think that's where the focus ought to be, yet there has only been out of those 1,400 roughly 20 species that have been recovered."
The USFWS has one year to decide if the salamanders will make the endangered species list.
"We're not doing, collecting our own scientific information, but we are gathering scientific information from the public as well as doing independent scientific peer review," said Zerrenner.
The USFWS is holding a informational meeting and public hearing at the Wingate by Wyndham in Round Rock on Wednesday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.