Dead Salamanders

Salamanders Dying as Endangered Debate Continues

illustration by Doug Potter

A dozen dead salamanders were found in the Eliza Springs outlet at Barton Springs last Friday -- the largest kill of Barton Springs salamanders ever recorded. The dead animals were found during a routine survey of the pool and adjacent spring outlets by city biologist Robert Hansen and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lisa O'Donnell.

Eliza Springs, also known as the polio pit, lies a few dozen yards east of the entrance to Barton Springs Pool. The earliest recorded observations of the salamander occurred nearly 50 years ago at Eliza Springs. University of Texas zoology professor David Hillis, who has studied the salamander for the past nine years, says the spot is one of the most important locations for the rare animal because it has few predators. "Now that this has happened, there's no conceivable way that anyone could say this is not an endangered species," said Hillis.

Protection for the salamander has been hotly debated for several years. And state officials, including Gov. George W. Bush, have vigorously opposed federal protection for the salamander. In February 1995, Bush wrote to U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, saying that the decision to protect the Barton Springs Salamander should be "based upon science, not some hysterical read by a well-meaning citizen." Bush may still believe that, but there is growing evidence that politics, not science, is preventing state and federal authorities from taking the actions necessary to save the salamander from extinction.

Court records and documents obtained by the Chronicle under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that on Aug. 7, the local office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said, "After thorough review and consideration of all information available, the Service has determined that the Barton Springs salamander should be classified as an endangered species." The scientists said the "best scientific data indicate that listing the Barton Springs salamander as endangered is warranted."

Their decision to list the animal was based on numerous factors, including deteriorating water quality in Barton Springs and declining numbers in the salamander population. The federal scientists were so concerned about the shrinking salamander population that they were planning to waive the 30-day period that usually precedes final addition to the Endangered Species List (ESL). And in the 93-page document detailing the listing decision, the FWS specifically mentioned Bush's 1995 letter, saying the agency is "unaware of any efforts to develop a management plan to alleviate threats to the Barton Springs watershed and the Barton Springs salamander."

However, the local office was overruled by Interior Department officials in Washington. Perhaps the most telling evidence that political, not scientific forces, resulted in the decision not to add the salamander to the ESL comes from an
e-mail message written by Mollie Beattie, the late director of the FWS. In a Jan. 18, 1995, message to a subordinate, Beattie wrote that "the upcoming listing decision on this one [the salamander] is of great concern to the secretary [Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt] since it has the capability of complicating the Austin (golden cheeked) conservation plan."

Throughout the final development stages of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, Babbitt and other Interior Department officials consistently avoided mention of the salamander. They knew that including the animal in the preserve system would have been divisive and could have derailed final implementation of the project, a project that Babbitt desperately wanted to see completed.

In August, FWS announced that it would allow three state agencies -- the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), and Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)-- to create a system of protections for the salamander, which is found only at Barton Springs. However, the rules designed by the three agencies, which were passed by the TNRCC last week, may be too weak to offer any protection to the salamander.

In an Oct. 16 letter to Steve Helfert, the Field Supervisor for the FWS' Austin office, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) pointed to a series of flaws in the new rules governing the Edwards Aquifer. The letter, obtained under the FOIA, did an analysis of the rules at the request of the FWS and determined that "non-point source pollution is not addressed in the contributing area." The USGS points out that the water at Barton Springs comes from a 354-square-mile area. Of that total, 264 square miles are outside of the aquifer's recharge zone. "Therefore," says the USGS, "75 percent of the area contributing flow to Barton Springs and associated aquifer is not protected from non-point source pollution."

In addition, the USGS pointed out that the new rules include no limits on impervious cover, even though two previous USGS studies on urbanization have shown that as impervious cover increases, water quality declines. (While the TNRCC doesn't believe impervious cover limits are needed, the FWS scientists had recommended stricter limits than the ones passed by Austin citizens in the Save Our Springs Ordinance. S.O.S. called for a maximum of 25% impervious cover. In their listing package, federal scientists said efforts should be made to increase existing native vegetation in the Barton Springs watershed.) And the USGS says that although the TNRCC's new rules rely on water pollution abatement technologies rather than impervious cover limits, the TNRCC has appropriated no money for water quality monitoring which would allow the state to see whether or not the water-quality facilities actually work.

In a July 17 memo that apparently accompanied a draft of the final listing package, FWS biologist Lisa O'Donnell told Helfert that "Based on the evaluation presented... and actions (or inactions) made by State agencies (TNRCC, TxDOT, TPWD) during the last couple of years, I just can't bring myself to acknowledge beneficial measures taken to protect the Barton Springs watershed that don't exist."

Mark Jordan, the director of water policy and regulations division at the TNRCC, defended the new rules. "We've met the letter and the intent of the conservation agreement," he said. "And we have had no indication from the Fish and Wildlife Service that what we have done is insufficient."

But the several federal officials are expressing dismay over what they say is a lack of teeth in the new rules. "The whole thing is a joke," said one official, who asked not to be named. And Hillis, the UT professor, believes that the recent salamander kill puts more pressure on the federal government. "If the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't list it as endangered now, it makes a mockery of the entire Endangered Species Act," he said.

Nevertheless, Gov. Bush has not changed his stance on the salamander, said spokesman Ray Sullivan. The governor, he said, "is concerned that the federal government may be, in the wake of the election, thinking of reneging on that deal and he certainly hopes that they do not."

To read the USGS assessment of the new Edwards Aquifer rules and the Nov. 18 letter from acting FWS director John Rogers to the TNRCC, go to the Chronicle's website at: /.

Lippo-Freeport Connection

The Lippo Group, the Indonesian conglomerate that has contributed huge amounts of soft money to the Democratic Party in the last few months, has come under scrutiny for its close ties to the Clinton Administration. But Lippo is not the only company with Indonesian operations that is trying to influence U.S. policy on Indonesia. According to a Nov. 26 story in the Journal of Commerce, James Riady, the son of the Lippo Group's chairman, has close ties to Jim Bob Moffett, the CEO of New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold.

Riady and Moffett both sit on the board of directors of the United States Indonesia Society, a group that was organized in 1994 when Republicans and Democrats in Congress began trying to end U.S. military aid to Indonesia because of the ongoing human rights abuses committed by the Suharto regime against the people of East Timor.

The Journal of Commerce quotes Russell King, Freeport's chief lobbyist in Washington, as saying the society is a "cross-cultural organization" that "plays no advocacy role in anything." King said, "Anything that can disrupt U.S.-Indonesia relations we watch with intense interest."

While King has been lobbying to protect Freeport's $3 billion investment in the vast Grasberg mine -- which contains the world's largest gold deposit -- Freeport officials, like their counterparts at the Lippo Group, have been funneling money to the Democratic National Committee. According to Federal Election Commission records, on Aug. 26, Freeport-McMoRan contributed $40,000 to the Democratic National Committee, followed with a $10,000 contribution on Sept. 6 by Nancy L. Adkerson, the wife of Freeport's chief financial officer, Richard Adkerson.

Freeport spokesmen in Austin and New Orleans did not return Chronicle phone calls.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Robert Bryce
If More CO<sub>2</sub> Is Bad ... Then What?
If More CO2 Is Bad ... Then What?
The need to reduce emissions collides head-on with the growing world demand for energy

Dec. 7, 2007

'I Am Sullied – No More'
'I Am Sullied – No More'
Col. Ted Westhusing chose death over dishonor in Iraq

April 27, 2007

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle