Coalition fights critical habitat designation - Fish & Wildlife has violated ESA by failing to conduct a proper economic analysis, says group

Amarillo Globe-News

By Kay Ledbetter

The Arkansas River Shiner Coalition filed a lawsuit Thursday in Federal District Court in Albuquerque, N.M., challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of critical habitat for the small minnow.

"We believe the Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to conduct a proper economic analysis of their designation of critical habitat for the shiner," said Ross Wilson, Texas Cattle Feeders Association vice president.

"The service is saying basically that there will be no economic impact from designating critical habitat. We believe the opposite is true," Wilson said.

About 98 percent of the total critical habitat area is held in private ownership and habitat designation could restrict land use and groundwater pumping in the listed areas, according to those filing the lawsuit.

"We have maintained all along and continue to maintain that designating critical habitat isn't necessary," Wilson said. "We have also repeatedly said that the government failed to follow its own definition for critical habitat and has failed to use adequate scientific and economic evidence."

USFWS officials in Tulsa, Okla., said they were not aware of the lawsuit. Officials at the Albuquerque office could not be reached for comment.

USFWS listed areas of critical habitat for the Arkansas River Shiner in four states comprising the Arkansas River Basin, including the Cimarron River in Oklahoma and Kansas; the Beaver/North Canadian River in Oklahoma; the Canadian/South Canadian River in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas; and the Arkansas River in Kansas.

The shiner was listed as threatened in November 1998, Wilson said, and at that time, the USFWS determined that critical habitat designation would not provide any additional benefit.

However, USFWS made the habitat designation in March 2001 as part of a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit filed by the environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity.

Critical habitat is defined as specific geographic areas that are essential for the conservation and recovery of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management considerations.

Kent Satterwhite, general manager of the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, said they too are a part of the coalition and the lawsuit.

"We're concerned about the critical habitat designation, which comes up onto our flood pool on the lake," Satterwhite said. "If the lake were to fill up into the flood pool, they could potentially require us to drain the lake down because of that. That's really our biggest issue."

The coalition TCFA and CRMWA has joined represents thousands of farmers, ranchers and other landowners affected by the designation.

Lawyers for the coalition are Michael Klein and Craig Douglas of Smith, Robertson, Elliott & Glen, L.L.P. in Austin.

Included as defendants in the lawsuit are Gale Norton, U.S. Secretary of the Interior; and Steve Williams, director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The coalition consists of New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Oklahoma Farm Bureau, Kansas Farm Bureau, CRMWA, TCFA, High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, Environmental Federation of Oklahoma, ProAg of Oklahoma, Settlers Ditch Co., Oklahoma Farmers Union, Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, Hitch Enterprises, Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, Kansas Livestock Association, North Plains Underground Water Conservation District and Oklahoma Panhandle Irrigation and Agriculture Association.

The Oklahoma Agricultural Legal Foundation is coordinating the coalition's efforts.

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