Last week, California River Watch sued a group of vineyard developers for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA), arguing that the group engaged in agricultural practices that harm the protected California Tiger Salamander (CTS). In 2014, a group of developers filed for and received permits to convert 9.8 acres of their property into vineyards. However, River Watch argues that the permits did not allow the developers to harm any CTS. The Sonoma CTS has been listed as an endangered distinct populations segment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2002 and a final rule listing the critical habitat was completed in 2003.

In its complaint, River Watch argues that the developers are engaging in agricultural practices that have significantly modified and degraded the critical habitat of Sonoma CTS, without obtaining the necessary permits or engaging in any mitigation. More specifically, the complaint alleges the developers have cleared, graded, plowed, ripped and planted the property, as well as developed the vineyard and used pesticides, which have damaged and continue to damage the CTS’ habitat in addition to interfering with the CTS’ feeding, breeding, and sheltering.

This is not the first time River Watch has filed a suit on this issue. In 2014, River Watch sued Sonoma County Supervisors for the same issue, arguing that the County allowed vineyard development that resulted in the destruction of protected CTS habitat including vernal pools, wetlands, and burrows essential to the CTS survival. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California ultimately dismissed this suit because it said the complaint failed to attack a specific project or approval and rather generally attacked all land use permit decisions by the local agency.

While the developer defendants have not yet commented on the filed suit, critics of River Watch litigation often accuse the group of using environmental protection laws, like ESA, to sue deep-pocket governmental entities that often settle out of court.

The case information is California River Watch v. Lee P. Martinelli et al., case number 3:18-cv-00030 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.