California tiger salamander
California tiger salamanders are known for distinctive yellow and white markings. They typically live underground, but ponds are critical for breeding. (Spenser Labay / Center for Biological Diversity photo)

A pond that for two decades supported California tiger salamander breeding at the Santa Maria Public Airport and nearby habitat have disappeared because of farming operations, prompting a watchdog group to threaten a lawsuit. 

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity has notified airport district officials about the intent to sue the agency for the alleged destruction of hundreds of acres deemed critical habitat for tiger salamanders.

The March 25 intent-to-sue missive from the nonprofit organization came months after the U.S. Fish and Wilidlife Service sent an Aug. 13 letter alleging an unauthorized take of a tiger salamander related to the “ground disturbing activities.”

The distinct population of Santa Barbara County California tiger salamanders has been labeled as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. 

The act prohibits any “taking” of a threatened and endangered species, with a “take” defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt. shoot, kill, trap, capture or collect, or attempt to engaged in such conduct.”

Harm also refers to significantly modifying the habitat so that it affects behavior, including breeding. Vernal pools, or seasonal ponds, are key for salamander breeding, but the allegation contends that 400 acres, including a pond and upland habitat, have been destroyed.

Tiffany Yap, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, called the changes “an egregious act.”

“Public agencies like the airport district are supposed to set a good example, not break the law and drive an endangered species closer to extinction,” Yap said. “California tiger salamanders are very special to the Santa Barbara area, but they’re struggling. If airport officials start conserving instead of decimating wildlife habitat, we might be able to steer these sensitive creatures toward recovery.”

California tiger salamanders boast white-and-yellow markings against a black body. The amphibians mostly live in underground burrows.

The airport property at the center of the dispute is considered excess land outside the fenced airfield area and leased by the district for farming operations.

“The Santa Maria Public Airport District is committed to the conservation of the California tiger salamander, and although I can’t discuss details regarding potential litigation, we hope to resolve the issue cooperatively with any agency or group with concerns about airport activities,” General Manager Chris Hastert told Noozhawk.

Fish and Wildlife officials spotted the missing pond in 2021 when reviewing the airport district’s request for a permit related to the development of the Santa Maria Airport Commerce Center on airport land between Foster Road and Union Valley Parkway. 

That application, submitted Jan. 6, 2021, shows the missing breeding pond — known as SAMA-10 — intact. The missing pond is on land near the proposed development.

Months later, aerial imagery showed the breeding pond and surrounding upland habitat had been destroyed, authorities said. 

“Take of a listed species is a violation of the ESA and could result in an applicant’s disqualification to receive or exercise the privileges of an incidental take permit in the future,” Stephen Henry, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor, wrote in a Dec. 1 letter. 

A civil or criminal violation of the ESA “may preclude the Service from issuance of an incidental take permit to the Airport” for the development, Henry added.

Fish and Wildlife referred the matter to its law enforcement officers for investigation of the alleged take. 

J.P. Rose, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, called upon the airport district to remedy the violation within the next 60 days or face legal proceedings. 

“These do not appear to be one-off incidents or accidents. These appear to be intentional actions, carried out by the airport, despite FWS’s warnings and objections,” Rose said. 

For more than three decades, the airport district has pushed to develop the area south of the airport, but encountered various stumbling blocks, including opposition from neighbors and concerns about protected species such as the tiger salamander and the California red-legged frog. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at