The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it will consider an almost decade-old petition to remove the Stephens' kangaroo rat from the government's list of endangered species.
Since 1988, when the burrow-dwelling rodent was placed on the endangered list, the rat has been a problem for developers, farmers and county officials, who had to devise plans that would both protect their economic interests and the rat.
"This has been a long, long battle," said Bob Kirken, who served on the Riverside County Farm Bureau when the petition was written in 1995 and resubmitted in 2002.
"I don't want the kangaroo rats to be extinct, but they never belonged on the list to begin with," he said. "Any farmer will tell you that you couldn't get rid of these things if you tried from now till eternity."
The petition's authors have provided "substantial information" to warrant a review of the species' conservation status, said Andy Yuen, deputy field supervisor at Fish and Wildlife offices in Carlsbad. A petition is deemed substantial if it has enough information to lead a reasonable person to believe that a proposed measure is warranted, according to a written statement released Wednesday by Fish and Wildlife.
But the folks at the Center for Biological Diversity in Idyllwild say the move to delist the kangaroo rat is politically motivated and not based in scientific fact.
"The habitat that the species occupy is the best land for development," said Monica Bond, a wildlife biologist. "The building industry -- you can just see them licking their chops at this."
Yuen said the wildlife service will begin soliciting information regarding ongoing conservation measures, species population, any new threats to the kangaroo rat and a host of other factors.
"I can't really say that this is going to lead to delisting action," Yuen said. "We're in the process of collecting this information and evaluating everything."
If the species is removed from the list, the Center for Biological Diversity will file a lawsuit, said Kassie Siegel, a staff attorney.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's acceptance of the petition to delist is absurd," she said. "Because of the service's own intransigence, the species is actually in more peril now."
Riverside County has spent about $40 million building a network of kangaroo rat preserves, said Richard Lashbrook, director of the county's Transportation and Land Management Agency. A planned Multi Species Habitat Conservation Plan, which would set aside 500,000 acres throughout the county for all types of endangered species, would not be affected by any change in the kangaroo rat's status.