For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 

Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185

Lawsuit Initiated to Save California Endangered Species From Habitat Destruction Caused by Vegetation Clearing on Levees

SAN FRANCISCO - The Center for Biological Diversity
today sent a notice of intent to sue the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a new policy that would require stripping
levees of vegetation that provides important habitat for imperiled fish, birds
and other species in California. The Corps already has a nationwide policy
requiring removal of trees and other vegetation from levees; now it wants to
cancel all exceptions to that policy and require all levees to be cleared
without evaluating the impacts on endangered species or their habitats in

"Levee safety can be achieved without a scorched-earth policy
that will destroy habitat for struggling species like salmon, steelhead trout,
and willow flycatchers," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the
Center. "The Corps has failed to consult with federal wildlife agencies about
the impacts of vegetation-free zones on California's endangered species. It's
left too little time for levee operators to get new variances."

After Hurricane Katrina, the Corps made major changes
to its nationwide levee policies, including new standards in 2009 banning
vegetation on or within 15 feet of levees. Earlier this year, the agency adopted
a variance policy requiring trees and bushes to be removed by September 30
unless a new variance was granted, forcing levee owners and operators to
scramble to meet the deadline. Although the Corps extended the deadline by an
additional year in some areas, such as parts of the Central Valley, the policy
could affect many other levees throughout the state.

The changes may significantly affect endangered
species that rely on vegetation for shade and complex habitat: the chinook
salmon, steelhead trout, giant garter snake, least Bell's vireo, southwestern
willow flycatcher and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle. Before the decision was
made, the Corps should have consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and the National Marine Fisheries Service, as required by the Endangered Species
Act. In many Southern California coastal streams, least vireos and flycatchers
nest in riparian vegetation; longhorn beetles inhabit elderberry trees along
Central Valley levees. Salmon and steelhead populations could suffer from
clearing that reduces vegetation and shade along waterways that are confined
within levees.

"There's little proof that trees threaten levees in
California. In fact, research shows that trees can strengthen levees, and a
scientific review by the Corps last year determined that some vegetation may
help stabilize them," said Miller. "The Corps' own documents admit that removing
vegetation may harm endangered species habitats, but instead of undertaking the
necessary consultation with wildlife agencies, the Corps has tried to push that
off onto local levee owners."


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