June 18, 2000
Manager, California/Nevada Operations
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
2800 Cottage Way, Room W-2606
Sacramento, CA 95825
Re: Proposed Determination of Critical Habitat for the Alameda Whipsnake, RIN 1018-AF98
I would like to respond to the May 4, 2000 letter to you on this subject from Robert E. Doyle, Assistant General Manager of the East Bay Regional Park District. Although he talked about me (libeled me, actually), he didn't bother to send me a copy of his letter. That alone should arouse the suspicion that he may not be telling the truth. Luckily, a friend discovered it and sent me a copy.
Mr. Doyle claims that hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on whipsnake habitat are harmless to the snake. He also says "nor are we aware of any information that describes or documents significant negative effects of non-motorized trail uses on whipsnakes or their habitat. We are unaware of any single incident in which whipsnake mortality has occurred on District lands … due to any agency actions or public usage. … While one dead whipsnake was found at Black Diamond Mines, several experts examined the snake and could not determine a cause of death". Actually, Professor Robert Stebbins, an expert herpetologist whom you undoubtedly know, said that the snake's injuries were "consistent with being hit by a bicyclist". He told me that it looked like its tail got caught in the spokes after it was hit. Mr. Doyle should know this, since I wrote the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) about this on July 2, 1995 (see http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/aws1.htm) and July 5, 1995 (http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/ebrpd10.htm).
Professor Stebbins also told me that a whipsnake den was destroyed by a bulldozer (luckily, the snake wasn't home at the time). Hiking trails are often maintained by bulldozer in EBRPD, so it is preposterous to say that hiking, biking, and horseback riding are harmless to the whipsnake! In Tilden Park EBRPD designated four areas in one of their park plans as whipsnake habitat. But four hiking-and-mountain biking trails run through the areas they designated! That doesn't give one the feeling that the Park District takes the protection of listed species very seriously!
Since I had heard a lot about the snake, but had never seen one in the wild, I went to Tilden one day to try to find one. I almost stepped on one! It was hidden in the grass growing in the trail (EBRPD calls these trails, but they are actually the width of a road and are maintained as roads). It was a juvenile, about 18-24 inches long. If a hiker can practically step on one, then, clearly, hiking is a threat to the snake. If I had been on a bike, the snake would be dead. This is to say nothing about the presence of humans, which would tend to drive the snake away from the resources that it needs (e.g. fence lizards). Fence lizards (per Gary Beeman, a biologist from Lafayette) like to lay their eggs in the soft dirt in or next to trails. Recreational use of those trails, and bulldozing them, undoubtedly kills many of those eggs and hence harms the whipsnake.
Mr. Doyle claims to need fire roads and need to bulldoze them. I have heard that East Bay Municipal Utility District mows theirs, rather than bulldozing them, preventing erosion and minimizing harm to wildlife. Perhaps roads are needed for law enforcement, but how many? It is unclear how many roads are needed in a given park, if any. Most of EBRPD's law enforcement problems are related to the presence of automobiles! So the roads, rather than being a benefit, are actually the cause of the problems! When I asked them why they weren't patrolling mountain biker scofflaws, they told me that they were too busy with automobile-related crimes!
Mr. Doyle claims that roads are needed as fire breaks. Again, how many are really needed, if any? There is really nothing in the parks so valuable that it is worth destroying the park's wildlife (for whom the park exists, really) to "protect" it from fire. The purpose of a park is to protect wildlife, not to protect surrounding homeowners from the effects of being near nature, to which they voluntarily subjected themselves by choosing to live there. There is nothing in the parks so valuable that it should take precedence over the protection of wildlife, such as the whipsnake.
Mr. Doyle claims that EBRPD closes roads and trails to protect wildlife, such as the California newt on South Park Drive. I am not aware of any trails ever being closed. He also neglected to mention that the road was closed only to cars, not to bicycles. So much for their concern for the newt.
Mr. Doyle asks that reservoirs and parking lots be excluded from the critical habitat. I presume that this is only so that the park district can manage them without regard to the whipsnake, just as they have managed the rest of their holdings, for as long as I have watched them.
Mr. Doyle claims that "continued public support for acquisition of regional parklands in inextricably tied to the need for appropriate access". First of all, EBRPD has demonstrated consistently over the many years I have watched them that they have no idea what is "appropriate access", consistent with the protection of wildlife. Second, I am not convinced that acquisition by EBRPD is the best way to protect wildlife, and therefore something that we should be overly concerned about. EBRPD seems most concerned about getting the maximum number of people into the parks, and making their access as easy as possible, even by motor vehicle, mountain bike, or animals used as vehicles. This is clearly not in the best interests of the wildlife, especially species like the whipsnake that are very sensitive to the presence and activities of humans.
I urge you to use your common sense, and ignore Mr. Doyle's letter, which represents an old, obsolete, pre-ESA way of thinking.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.
Vandeman, Michael J.http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande