Revised Species Protection Law Eases Farmers' Anxiety

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marvin Meyers is as big as a bull, a powerful man toughened by 22 years on the farm. Yet he lives in fear of a whiskered rodent just 4 inches long--so tiny he could crush it with a clench of his fist.

The animal in question is no ordinary rodent. It's the Fresno kangaroo rat, an endangered species.

Biologists say the sand-colored rat lives in the dry grass that flanks Meyers' cotton crop. If one should stray onto his land and burrow there, it could mean trouble.

"If that happens, I'm dead meat," said Meyers, 63, who farms 5,000 acres west of Fresno. "The regulators could shut me right down."

Politicians are sympathetic. Last month, lawmakers and Gov. Pete Wilson gave Meyers and other California farmers some relief, approving a controversial overhaul of the state Endangered Species Act--the most sweeping change since the law's passage in 1984.

Under the revised act, farmers may not be prosecuted for killing a protected species or plowing up its habitat--so long as it was an accident. The new law also encourages growers to create wildlife habitat on their property and use environmentally sensitive farming methods.

Critics call the legislative changes--which also created new rules for developers--a calamitous weakening of protections that will hasten the decline of California's most fragile species. When the program sailed through a state Senate committee last month, Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) declared it "the saddest day for the environment" in his 14-year legislative career.

Hayden warned that the revised law will allow would-be abusers "to cry 'accident' every time a species gets run over by their plows." Several environmental groups agree.

But others hail the program as an innovative way to enlist farmers in an effort they call crucial to imperiled species--preserving and creating habitat the wildlife needs to survive and reproduce. They note that habitat fragmentation in California--caused by agriculture as well as the ceaseless sprawl of subdivisions--is the single greatest threat to imperiled plants and animals.

"We needed to give farmers some incentives to create and restore habitat," said John McCaull of the National Audubon Society. "The old approach wasn't doing that."

Mostly absent from the Capitol debate have been the farmers themselves. While their lobbyists were prominent in negotiations over the bill, growers stayed in the background, wary perhaps, or pessimistic that change to their liking would come.

But now that the compromise has been signed into law, there is cause for some optimism in the countryside.

"It's a good first step," Meyers said one recent morning, watching his workers harvest an almond crop likely to total 1 million pounds. He is especially pleased that farmers will no longer be punished if they kill an endangered species by accident. While Meyers says he would not intentionally roll over an animal in his path, farmers often don't know that they have hit something until the vultures start to circle.

"Look," he said, "I'm human. I don't know if I have a kangaroo rat on my land, but if I run over a burrow by accident, I shouldn't be thrown in jail."

Such talk may sound alarmist, but it reflects sentiments found on farms and ranches throughout California. Like weather, market prices and the water supply, endangered species are an ongoing source of anxiety for many growers and ranchers in the nation's most productive agricultural state.

Under the state Endangered Species Act--and a similar law at the federal level--farmers have been vulnerable to fines and other penalties if they destroyed or harmed protected creatures or their habitat. There has never been a prosecution under the state act, but enforcement by federal officials has been tougher.

While regulators insist they do not prowl the farm belt looking for lawbreakers, growers have a wealth of examples illustrating how they have suffered under the act. The stories are told and retold by farmers in coffee shops from Susanville to the Imperial Valley:

In Fresno County, farmers suffered economic losses because of bans on poison bait used to kill crop-eating squirrels and rabbits. One cotton farmer said the ban--relaxed after the creation of bait stations impenetrable by kangaroo rats--cost him $20,000.

Monterey County growers lost the use of valuable acreage when they were ordered to create a buffer between their crops and a slough inhabited by a protected salamander.

In Madera County, coyote trapping to protect cattle and sheep was curtailed because of threats to an endangered kit fox.

Farmers along the Sacramento River were barred from removing wild elderberry bushes from flood control levees because the bushes host an endangered beetle. The bushes provide cover for squirrels that burrow in the levees, making them vulnerable to collapse.

And throughout the Central Valley, diversions of water to protect endangered winter-run salmon and the delta smelt have caused shortages on the farmers' end of the pipe, forcing cutbacks in cultivation.

"There is good cause to be afraid," said Shawn Stevenson, a grower of citrus, pistachios and kiwis in Clovis. "I know many, many farmers who are aware of what's on their land and are scared to death that [government regulators] are going to find out about it."

And even though the state Endangered Species Act has now been modified, growers still could face penalties if they harm or kill an animal on the federal list. Two bills rewriting the federal Endangered Species Act are under consideration in Congress.

To protect themselves, Stevenson and some other farmers do all they can to reduce the appeal their land holds for endangered species. The result is what some call "scorched earth" farming, in which acreage that is not in cultivation is kept barren with bulldozers and herbicides.

The goal of the newly written state act is to reverse this logic and encourage farmers to grow wildlife habitat on their land, either on edges that are unsuitable for crops, along irrigation canals or on ground made fallow by water shortages or cash flow problems.

"The potential is tremendous," said state Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), author of the bill creating the changes to the act. "We have 30 million acres involved in the production of food and fiber in this state. There are many places where a program like this will work."

Critics, however, are skeptical. If a farmer grows habitat on a piece of fallow ground, but is then allowed to replant two years later, what happens to the species that have taken up residence there?

"It's fine to have a short-term gain in habitat," said Tara Mueller of the Environmental Law Foundation, "but I don't see the long-term benefit if the farmer is allowed to come back in and plow."

Architects of the program concede that the approach has shortcomings but say that many animal and bird species will be able to relocate if and when a farmer decides to recultivate.

"We have accepted the notion that temporary or cyclical habitat is better than no habitat at all," said McCaull of the Audubon Society. "But that doesn't mean we're willing to just say you can blitz it if certain species become dependent. A farmer would not be able to take an action that would jeopardize the continued existence of a species."

Perhaps the greatest habitat potential exists on the margins of farms--areas not suitable for crops. McCaull and others envision a transformation in which fields now bordered by bare earth will be ringed by grasses, shrubs and trees for birds, rodents and other animals.

This approach is already in play at Hedgerow Farms in Winters, northwest of Sacramento. There, John Anderson has planted rows of native grasses along the perimeter of his corn, tomato and sunflower crops. Elsewhere, he has planted native trees and shrubs.

The vegetation has served as a magnet for wildlife, everything from snakes to rodents, lizards, insects and more than 100 species of birds. Among the denizens are at least two endangered species--the Swainson's hawk and the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle.

Anderson loves the wildlife, but his plantings serve a practical purpose as well--choking out weeds and dramatically reducing his need for costly herbicides. His unorthodox methods have had no negative effect on his yields.

As for the endangered species--and the chance he might run afoul of the law--Anderson isn't worried. "Why would the regulators come after me," he said. "I'm doing something good for wildlife, so they're going to leave me alone."

Anderson promotes his approach at regional farming workshops, but so far, few have followed his lead. "I'm an eccentric," he said, "and most farmers are worriers and don't want endangered species anywhere near their ground."

Down the highway in Firebaugh, Meyers is somewhere in between. He is distrustful of bureaucrats who, in his opinion, are biased against farmers in their enforcement of the law. But the idea of creating habitat--of luring wildlife--clearly appeals.

Touring the edges of his vast acreage in a pickup, Meyers points with pride at a pond he created as a drinking source for kit foxes, badgers and other animals that wander down from the sunbaked Pinoche Hills. Farther along, he pauses by a narrow canyon and wonders about its potential as future shade habitat.

"You know," he said, "farmers are stewards of the land, and we appreciate wildlife. We can also coexist with wildlife. But you can't keep using the hammer on us. There's got to be some give and take."

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