A group of environmental advocacy organizations made good on a promise to sue San Francisco today over what they call .
The Wild Equity Institute, one of the plaintiff's in today's lawsuit filed with a United States District Court, had issued a 60-day intent to sue with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department (RPD), which manages the golf course, on Nov. 18, 2010, but nothing had been sent to a court until today.
Alongside Wild Equity as plaintiffs are the Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Surfrider Foundation, Sequoia Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.
The plaintiffs' intentions in the suit are threefold, explained Neal Desai, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
First, they want to compel the RPD to adopt a complete habitat restoration agenda for Sharp Park west of Highway 1 that does not include golf, similar to what is laid out in a study published by an environmental consulting firm in January and touted by environmentalists as the only “peer-reviewed” study to-date.
Second, they want to force the RPD to develop a habitat protection process for the land that abides by federal ESA laws. However, there is a seemingly insurmountable stumbling block in the way of the department doing this, said Desai.
Because frogs, snakes and frog egg masses are still damaged regularly on the course, the city would have to get an Incidental Take Permit (ITP), which would allow for the killing of endangered and threatened species during normal golf course management activity while a protection process is being implemented, in order to continue to allow golf there.
"Getting a permit to kill species for golf is an absurd thing for the city to do," said Desai. "Not to mention that it's highly unlikely [the federal government would allow it]."
Sharp Park Golf Course regularly floods and frogs, snakes and egg masses are damaged when course managers pump the water out. If the city cannot get an ITP as part of its habitat protection process, no pumping will be allowed and golfing would be impossible.
Third, environmentalists want a cessation to endangered and threatened species deaths at Sharp Park.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs' complain that currently the city and county of San Francisco are unlawfully killing frogs and snakes.
"This case under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544, challenges the City and County of San Francisco’s (“City”) unlawful “take” e.g., killing, wounding, harm, and harassment – of two federally listed and highly imperiled species at Sharp Park Golf Course (“Sharp Park”), property owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco,” reads the lawsuit. “The City’s operation and management of Sharp Park is taking the threatened California red-legged frog-also known as “Twain’s Frog” from Mark Twain’s story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County – and the endangered San Francisco garter snake, deemed by reptile enthusiasts to be the most beautiful serpent in North America. By taking these species without obtaining an Incidental Take Permit (“ITP”) pursuant to Section 10 of the ESA,16 U.S.C. § 1539(a)(1)(B), the City is violating the ESA and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (“FWS”) implementing regulations."
Plaintiffs also claim that damage has been done to these populations as recently as last week.
"Take of these endangered species is an ongoing, immediate concern. As recently as February 22, 2011, Plaintiffs have discovered California red-legged frog egg masses exposed to the air due to water management activities conducted by the City,” they assert in the lawsuit. “When the City drains Sharp Park’s wetlands, it exposes frog egg masses to the air. Because these egg masses must stay moist to survive, egg masses exposed to the air quickly dry out, and all the frog eggs die. A single egg mass can contain thousands of eggs: thus, the loss of even one egg mass results in significant mortality for the species, in ongoing violation of the ESA."
Plaintiffs are asking the court to “declare that Defendants are violating the ESA by illegally taking the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake without an ITP…Enjoin Defendants from engaging in operations and activities that cause take of the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake at Sharp Park unless and until Defendants obtain an ITP…Award Plaintiffs their costs and attorneys' fees, including expert witness fees; and…Grant Plaintiffs such other and further relief as this Court may deem just and proper."
If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, pumping at could be halted until the Recreation and Parks Department receives an ITP. Golf would be impossible some days without pumping.
"It’s clear that the city’s to protect endangered species at Sharp Park has failed miserably and it’s time to stop this unnecessary harm to protected species,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department had a chance to review the lawsuit and environmentalists claims against its management of the Sharp Park Golf Course.
"This lawsuit isn’t a surprise," said Elton Pon, spokesman for RPD said. "We knew it was coming because of the recent _ released by them. Our number one priority has been and always will be the protection of the wildlife out there. For the past couple of years we've been working with land managers, stakeholders and plaintiffs themselves to identify the best course of operation in terms of protecting the wildlife. We remain fully committed to protecting the environment, that’s generally it."
In response to plaintiffs’ claims that his agency is failing to protect endangered and threatened species at Sharp Park, Pon said "I think we've actually been doing a good job out there. Currently we’re monitoring 159 egg nests out there and that’s actually a banner year for the frog eggs over the last seven years I think. Our track record has been pretty good out there."
Lisa Wayne, natural areas manager at RPD, wasn't sure if it would in fact be possible for her agency to acquire an ITP in order to keep pumping water off the course while implementing a environmental protection plan.
"That’s something that takes a lot of back and forth with the Fish and Wildlife Service, as they're the regulatory agency. It's hard for me to say at this point."
The lawsuit is attached as a PDF.