An olive-brown snake that could thwart an eastern San Gabriel Valley highway project flicked its red-tipped tongue and squirmed uneasily in the hands of zoologist Glenn Stewart.
Stewart was showing off a two-striped garter snake, once a denizen of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills and these days sequestered in a research laboratory cage at Cal Poly Pomona.
The two-foot-long snake belongs to the species Thamnophis hammondi , recently thrust into the battle over a proposed $14-million project that would widen a crowded six-mile stretch of commuter road through semi-rural La Verne, Claremont and Upland.
A lawsuit filed this month in Pomona Superior Court suggests that widening Route 30, also known as Base Line Road, might jeopardize the habitat of the elusive two-striped garter snake.
State environmental officials list the snake as a "special concerns" species, which means that anyone collecting or studying it must get a state permit.
"There needs to be an (environmental impact report) just to take a look at all this from the animals' viewpoint," said George Keeler, a member of the Community Assn. for a Responsible Environment, the homeowners group that filed the suit to block the project.
However, to Caltrans officials and other proponents of the project, it is ludicrous that a garter snake--named for a subtle ribbon of color running along its sides--might hamper what some people see as one solution to regional transportation gridlock.
"This garter snake thing blows me away," said project supporter Tony Malone, executive vice president of the Upland Chamber of Commerce. "What will they think of next? It seems to be reaching."
But urban development and housing tracts have wiped out much of the two-striped garter snake's habitat throughout the canyon lands and foothills of Southern California, according to Stewart, a Cal Poly biological sciences professor.
"It used to be the most abundant snake around," said another garter snake expert, Mark Jennings, a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The drought has placed a further burden on the aquatic snake, the experts say, and in certain locations the water shortage could be the death knell for the species, which in past decades thrived around stream beds from Monterey to Baja California.
This is all the more reason, project opponents say, to require closer environmental scrutiny of any proposed construction where the snake is thought to survive.
Advocates of the road widening acknowledge that protecting a snake's habitat has emotional appeal. But the issue is a bogus one, according to Ronald Kosinski, chief of environmental planning for Caltrans in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. "Basically, (project opponents) just took a shotgun, hoping to hit at every conceivable issue," he said.
Caltrans has carefully considered the issue, Kosinski said, and "we believe the garter snake is well outside of the impact area."
Indeed, a Caltrans report in February stated, "The proposed project will not have any effect on natural vegetation, sensitive plants or animal species."
Further, the report said, "A biological resource study was undertaken by Caltrans biological specialists with the assistance" of Cal Poly Pomona's Stewart, concluding "that no biological resource impacts will occur."
The area of controversy is Live Oak Canyon, which covers portions of Claremont, La Verne and unincorporated Los Angeles County.
Recently, as Stewart handled a snake that was collected from the San Dimas Canyon area, he said the proposed Base Line Road widening "probably will not significantly" affect the snake's remaining habitat in Live Oak Canyon, just east of San Dimas Canyon.
Still, as a former resident of a Live Oak Canyon bluff, Stewart said he hopes Caltrans will undertake an environmental impact report that would include more scrutiny of the two-striped garter snake.
"In Live Oak Canyon, I've seen snakes exactly like that," Stewart said as the snake, marked by creamy yellow stripes, twined its supple body around his fingers.
Fourteen years ago, at the request of Claremont officials studying the ecology of the city's foothills, Stewart wrote a report concluding that Live Oak Canyon was "probably the only place where the two-striped garter snake occurs in the Claremont area."
These days, Stewart said, referring to lowlands near the mouth of Live Oak Canyon by Base Line Road, "it's remotely possible one (snake) could be in that drainage area from time to time."
The two-striped garter snake is named in part after an Army surgeon, William Hammond, who became U.S. surgeon general during the Civil War. The snake was first collected by Hammond in the San Diego area in the 1850s.
Once known as Thamnophis couchi hammondi, it was considered a subspecies of the Western aquatic garter snake until recent years, when it gained status as a full species.