The tiger salamander is a large, black-colored, stocky amphibian with white or pale yellow spots. It lives in grasslands and low foothills, requiring seasonal ponds, or vernal pools, for breeding grounds.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the species is comprised of three main populations in Sonoma County, Central California, and Santa Barbara County. While the Santa Barbara and Sonoma county populations are federally listed as endangered, the Central California population is considered threatened.
Another key issue for the tiger salamander is geographical areas known as “critical habitat,” where the federal government designates areas in need of special management and protection for a given species. Currently, 11,180 acres in Santa Barbara County are designated as critical habitat areas for the tiger salamander population.
The California tiger salamander is in an especially difficult position in Santa Barbara County. Over the last century, more and more agricultural land has been converted from open grazing land — where adult tiger salamanders can often live in rodent burrows and travel between breeding grounds — to intensive row crop agriculture. The newly converted land often controls rodents, thus eliminating the underground burrows adult salamanders need. In addition, many ponds known or suspected to have been breeding grounds for the salamanders have been destroyed by development.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, researchers talk about the tiger salamanders in Santa Barbara County in terms of “meta-populations.” Because of the lack of movement between breeding grounds, distinct populations have emerged that have no contact with each other. In addition, the Santa Barbara County population as a whole has been so isolated from other California populations that some believe the amphibians should be designated as a unique species.
The California Fish and Game Commission’s vote on Wednesday represents a step toward more protection for the salamander populations. While the three distinct salamander populations were designated individually as either endangered or threatened federally, the state’s vote represents a decision to step up efforts to protect the population as a whole.
It will require farmers to undergo increased scrutiny before developing on possible or known salamander habitats. The 3-2 vote faced objections from the wine industry, business groups, and homebuilders who argued that the Commission’s vote was based on inaccurate estimates of how much of the salamander’s habitat will be developed in the near future without further conservation efforts.