Possible designation of critical habitats for the Jollyville, Georgetown, Salado and Austin Blind salamanders could cost $29 million in developmental impacts during the next 23 years, according to a draft economic analysis released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 25.
Critical habitats are defined by USFWS as areas containing essential features to the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and call for additional considerations in development and construction. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, USFWS must consider the economic impact of designating an area as a critical habitat.
"If the benefits of excluding an area outweigh the benefits of designating it, the [service] may exclude an area from critical habitat [classification], unless that would jeopardize the existence of a threatened or endangered species," according to a USFWS news release.
The designation of critical habitats has been a concern throughout Williamson County as officials fear the measure could hamper development in the area. The $29 million figure accounts for impacts to possible development, transportation, mining, and species and habitat management activities in the proposed habitats, but it does not cover water management activities, utility projects and livestock grazing activities, according to the analysis.
Williamson County Commissioner Valerie Covey, who serves on the board of the Williamson County Conservation Foundation, said the science and economic impact do not justify listing the salamanders.
"I believe the decision should be science-based, and the science does not prove or substantiate the need to list the salamander," Covey said. "So when you look at that and you look at the financial impact it's going to have on our county, it frustrates me greatly to see that a decision is going to be made for political reasons, not science-based."
In addition to releasing the draft analysis, USFWS announced its intent to add 474 acres to the Jollyville Salamander's proposed critical habitat, bringing the total to 6,457 acres of proposed protected land. The Georgetown Salamander's habitat also underwent adjustments that did not affect its total acreage.
With its announcements, USFWS opened another public comment period that will close March 11. For more information or to submit a comment, visit www.fws.gov/southwest.