Additional federal protection for threatened East Bay snake


Contact: Jeff Miller (510) 841-0812

Center for Biological Diversity

Berkeley, CA - The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today formally proposed designation of "critical habitat" pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the imperiled Alameda whipsnake (Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus). Settlement of a lawsuit brought last year by the Center for Biological Diversity and Christians Caring For Creation compelled FWS to delineate the habitat critical for the recovery of the whipsnake. The designation could halt approval of several proposed development projects within the range of the snake. The whipsnake, listed as a threatened species under the ESA in December 1997, occupies northern coastal scrub and chaparral habitats primarily in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties. The whipsnake’s habitat has been severely reduced and fragmented by urban sprawl, road construction, livestock grazing, and fire suppression.

"The decline of the Alameda whipsnake has paralleled the rapid spread of urban sprawl" said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the California office of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The snake has borne the brunt of golf course proliferation and the tacky condo schemes inflicted upon the landscape the past several decades." "As the whipsnake goes, so goes the open space we cherish so much in the East Bay" added Miller. "Critical habitat will provide an urgently needed layer of protection for the whipsnake and preserve some of our dwindling open space in the process."

The whipsnake is a slender snake with black dorsal coloring and distinctive yellow-orange racing stripes down each side. Adults grow from three to four feet in length. The Alameda whipsnake is extremely fast moving and holds its head high off the ground in a cobra-like manner while hunting for potential prey, which includes lizards, small mammals, snakes, and nesting birds. Whipsnakes occupy a home range from 5 to 20 acres and can move up to a mile while traversing their territories. The whipsnake utilizes coastal scrub and chaparral for cover, adjacent grassland as foraging habitat, and rock outcrops for basking to regulate its body temperature.

The ESA defines critical habitat as the "areas essential for the survival and recovery of species." The critical habitat designation for the whipsnake encompasses over 400,000 acres in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Joaquin Counties. Federal agencies may not authorize, permit, or fund projects which destroy or "adversely modify" critical habitat for a listed species. Many proposed developments in whipsnake habitat need federal permits from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the critical habitat designation will require consultation with FWS to evaluate their impact on the snake’s habitat.

Urban development and major highways have fragmented the whipsnake into five remaining population centers: (1) Sobrante Ridge, Tilden/Wildcat Regional Parks area to Briones Hills, in Contra Costa County (Tilden-Briones population); (2) Oakland Hills, Anthony Chabot area to Las Trampas Ridge, in Contra Costa County (Oakland-Las Trampas population); (3) Hayward Hills, Palomares area to Pleasanton Ridge, in Alameda County (Hayward-Pleasanton Ridge population); (4) Mount Diablo vicinity and the Black Hills, in Contra Costa County (Mount Diablo-Black Hills population) and (5) Wauhab Ridge, Del Valle area to the Cedar Mountain Ridge, in Alameda County (Sunol-Cedar Mountain population).

Numerous proposed housing developments in Alameda County will further fragment habitat areas of the Hayward-Pleasanton Ridge population. These include the 500 acre Schaefer Ranch Project with approximately 474 homes, the 146 acre Hansen Ranch Project, the Hayward 1900 proposal for 618 homes on Walpert Ridge, and the 650 homes and golf course planned at Blue Rock along Hayward Ridge. The 135-home Bailey Ranch project currently under construction along Walpert Ridge has already destroyed adjacent occupied whipsnake habitat.

The Mount Diablo-Black Hills population will be adversely affected by urban expansion of the cities of Pittsburgh, Oakley, Brentwood, and Antioch. Developments such as the 115 unit Clayton Ranch (1,030 acres) and 5,200 unit Cowell Ranch (1,272) acres would expose the eastern flank of the Mt. Diablo population to the negative impacts of urbanization. The Tilden-Briones population will be subject to increased population pressure from the north by the approved 800 unit Franklin Canyon (980 acres) project. Additional developments are approved or proposed adjacent to the Sunol-Cedar Mt. Population in the rapidly growing urban areas near Dublin and Pleasanton in Alameda County.

Within the Oakland-Las Trampas population, several proposed development projects adjacent to Las Trampas Regional Wilderness would impact habitat known to be occupied by Alameda whipsnakes. The proposed Gateway Valley development and golf course in Orinda, adjacent to Sibley Volcanic Preserve, would adversely affect critical habitat for the whipsnake.

Livestock grazing that significantly reduces or eliminates shrub and grass cover is detrimental to the whipsnake, as it tends to avoid such open areas because of the increased danger from predators and the lack of prey species. FWS cited "inappropriate grazing practices" as threats to the Mount Diablo-Black Hills and Sunol-Cedar Mountain populations when the whipsnake was listed as threatened. Overgrazing on public park and watershed lands managed by the East Bay Regional Park District, East Bay Municipal Utilities District, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has degraded whipsnake habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Christians Caring For Creation settled a lawsuit in November 1999 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to compel the designation of critical habitat pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for seven species of rare wildlife in California and Alaska, including the Alameda whipsnake. A proposed rule for the critical habitat designation is expected to be published in the Federal Register on March 8, then there will be a public comment period. Pursuant to the lawsuit settlement agreement, critical habitat will be finalized by September 1, 2000.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1989, dedicated to preserving imperiled wildlife and their habitats. The Center’s "Golden State Biodiversity Initiative" has successfully petitioned and litigated to place 76 California species under the protection of the Endangered Species Act since 1989. The Center has 5,000 members and has offices in Berkeley and San Diego, California; Silver City, New Mexico; and Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona.

Christians Caring for Creation (CCC) is based in Pasadena, California and is dedicated to the protection of all of God’s creation. CCC has a prayer network of over a thousand people across the United States who lobby, write letters, and pray for the protection of the environment and all species.

A map of the approximate range of the whipsnake is available upon request.

Beautiful color photos of the Alameda whipsnake in electronic format can be obtained from local photographer Michael Sewell - please call Michael at (415) 488-1850.