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U.S. Shields Land for Endangered Rodent

Environment: Agency designates 33,295 acres in San Bernardino and Riverside counties as critical habitat for the kangaroo rat.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday officially designated 33,295 acres in San Bernardino and Riverside counties as critical habitat for the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat.

The move means development projects proposed within the habitat area will have to clear higher hurdles to obtain some permits from federal agencies, according to environmentalists and county officials. The designation takes effect May 23.

The acreage is in four groupings: by Lytle and Cajon creeks, primarily east of Interstate 15 and west of Interstate 215 north of Highland Avenue; in the Etiwanda area, just west of Interstate 15 and north of Highland Avenue; along the Santa Ana River and wash in the Highland area; and along the San Jacinto River in Riverside County near the cities of San Jacinto and Hemet.

The designation "will make it tougher" for the proposed Lytle Creek North residential development and for some San Bernardino County flood control projects, said Randy Scott, the county's division chief for advance planning.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Lytle Creek North on Dec. 4. The project is a 647-acre community with 2,466 homes just south of the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion. About 7,000 residents would live there. It would include 29 acres of parkland and 66 acres of open space, as well as commercial and possibly industrial uses.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which sought the designation, said it will help protect the kangaroo rat. But a center attorney, Kassie Siegel, lamented the exclusion of 22,000 additional acres originally proposed for protection.

"We don't believe that the reduction is biologically justified," she said.

All nine scientists who reviewed the habitat plan before it became final called for more land to be included, Siegel said. But the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that designating all of the acreage was not necessary for the protection of the kangaroo rat, according to documents published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

The San Bernardino kangaroo rat is about 9 inches long from head to tail and pale yellow and brown. It is a subspecies of Merriam's kangaroo rat but is so different from other subspecies some scientists consider it practically a species unto itself, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It once was found throughout the San Bernardino and San Jacinto valleys, but its habitat "has been severely reduced and fragmented by development and related activities," the service said.

The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the county in state court over its approval of the Lytle Creek North project. Tuesday's Fish and Wildlife ruling will not affect that suit, but should make it more difficult for the developer to get federal permits to rechannel a portion of Lytle Creek, Siegel said.

"We don't believe they can obtain the permits they need," she said.

Jan Dabney, project engineer for Lytle Creek North, did not return a call for comment.

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