FARMERS in California's fertile heartland have stoutly endured drought, Medfly infestations, and the public's shifting tastes. Now they're being forced to allow wildlife biologists to inspect their land for endangered species habitat or face losing their water supply.
``The ramifications are potentially enormous,'' says Carolyn Richardson of the California Farm Bureau Federation. ``The result of the survey probably will be to designate certain portions as endangered species habitat,'' she says, with the result that they will be placed off-limits or have other restrictions on their use. This is seen, she says, as a threat to take from farmers the use of their land by taking from them the water to farm it.
To the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which made the unprecedented demand to survey the land as a condition for renewing federal water contracts with the US Bureau of Reclamation, it's an efficient way to make a comprehensive ground survey of endangered species habitat in the San Joaquin Valley.
``The Bureau of Reclamation has been delivering water to the Central Valley for over 40 years, and this is the first time there's been a close look at the effects of irrigation on the habitats in the Valley,'' says Chris Eacock, natural resource specialist with the Bureau. ``We want to get an inventory of what's left of the endangered species habitat and to preserve it.''
Change in enforcement
The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, but farmers have rarely been caught in its reach. In the past few years, however, California farmers and ranchers have observed a distinct change in the enforcement mood. In addition to survey letters sent to farmers last summer, criminal charges of violating the act have been brought against three farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in the past few months. In the previous 20 years, only a handful have been cited.
In the most recent case, armed federal agents arrested Kern County farmer Taung-Ming Lin, charging that he disced land he allegedly knew to be the home of three endangered species: the San Joaquin Valley kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the Tipton kangaroo rat. Mr. Lin could face up to three years in jail and $300,000 in fines. The case has rallied farmers, about 2,000 of whom are expected to attend a demonstration in Fresno, Calif., on Aug. 29, the date of Lin's next court appearance.
Another farmer convicted earlier this year of criminal violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was forced to turn over 50 of his 160 acres in Tulare County to the Fish and Wildlife Service and was assessed a $5,000 fine.
``If the Endangered Species Act is for everybody, why put it just on the backs of the property owners to pay the costs of mitigation?'' asks Loron Hodge, founder of the Bakersfield Coalition for Private Property Rights.
Lin, a Taiwanese immigrant who requires a Mandarin interpreter in court appearances, didn't know that his land was home to any endangered species, says David Rudnick, Lin's attorney. Proving that Lin not only injured, harassed, or killed an endangered species but knew that he was doing it is essential to the federal government's case. US attorneys say they have evidence to show that Lin knew he shouldn't have disced the land.
Fewer than 40 percent of the landowners who got the survey letters have agreed to let biologists on their property, mainly because they fear that if an endangered species habitat is found, wardens will be closely watching their farming activities for infractions of wildlife laws.
Rosalie Faubion, a biologist with the Bureau of Reclamation, scoffs at this notion, saying: ``We've got better things to do than stand on a guy's fence with a pair of binoculars and wait and see if he kills a kit fox.''
The goal of the survey is to determine how much critical habitat should be purchased and to develop a conservation plan based on scientific knowledge, rather than assumptions, she says.
But the discovery of an endangered species habitat, or refusal to cooperate in the survey, could jeopardize a farmer's water supply, and that alone has caused most farmers in this arid area to feel skittish. Most California farmers get abundant, taxpayer-subsidized water from the Central Valley Project (CVP). With contracts up for renewal, they are bracing to pay more.
More water for wildlife
In addition, recent federal legislation mandates that a portion of CVP water be dedicated to fish and wildlife, regardless of farmer or rancher needs. On top of these concerns is their frustration at the ease with which plants and animals are added to the endangered species list, and what they call the ``storm trooper'' attitude of enforcement agents.
``The bottom line is, the Endangered Species Act is changing agriculture in California,'' says Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. ``It really doesn't matter anymore how much snow falls in the Sierra. There's a regulatory drought.'' Farmers are wary about leaving farmland fallow - a common practice to replenish the soil - in case an endangered species takes up residence, rendering it unusable.
Most property owners won't face any water cut off to their already cultivated land, but the Bureau of Reclamation surveys could prevent them from developing or plowing uncultivated land. In any case, educating property owners about the survey's purpose in the current atmosphere of distrust and animosity has been hard to do, acknowledge wildlife officials.
``Water issues are very contenious in California because there is an increasing demand by urban areas, but not a whole lot more water to go around,'' says Scott Pearson, senior resident agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service. ``Someone who's been getting water may not get it in the future, and water is money.''