Beetle along Sutter County waterways spurs new battle
A beetle that calls Sutter County waterways home is again the source of a tug-of-war between federal wildlife officials and Sutter County levee authorities trying to strip the insect of its protected status.
Levee District 1 of Yuba City is on the verge of a court action to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the valley elderberry longhorn beetle from its list of threatened species, district Manager Bill Hampton confirmed Thursday.
The levee board green-lighted the move last month, but Hampton said the district is holding off going to U.S. District Court while it seeks a settlement with Fish and Wildlife first.
Local authorities have long attacked the beetle's 30-year-old protected status as underestimating the insect's numbers, driving up the cost of maintenance and repairs, and even threatening Yuba-Sutter's flood protection.
Because of the elderberry beetle's federal listing, the levee district was required to transplant elderberry bushes — the insect's only habitat — and create 20 acres of new space for the plants while it relocated a levee at Starr Bend on the Feather River.
Though the setback levee was completed in October under budget, the extra work cost the district an extra $387,000 to replace habitat Hampton said already is plentiful in the Sacramento Valley.
"Every penny we spend needs to be put into the actual levee because money's very hard to come by," he said. "Elderberry trees grow everywhere in the riverbottom, so why should we have to plant more of them?"
Fish and Wildlife in 1980 declared the elderberry beetle threatened — one level of urgency below endangered — after finding only three surviving habitats in Yolo, Sacramento and Merced counties, according to Al Donner, assistant field supervisor for the agency's Sacramento office.
The agency estimates about 90 percent of the insect's former habitat had disappeared since California gained statehood in 1850.
L.D. 1's push to remove the beetle's listing comes as federal authorities already are weighing that move.
A 2007 Fish and Wildlife review recommended lifting the insect's threatened status, citing the restoration of some of its habitat from Shasta to Kern counties. The federal agency plans to bring out a delisting plan for public review later this year, Donner said.
Elsewhere in the Mid-Valley, Reclamation District 784, which covers many flood-prone areas in south Yuba County, also voted at its last board meeting to join L.D. 1's petition.
R.D. 784 General Manager Steve Fordice said the district was asked to do so, but board members had reservations about the costs of complying with the department's proposal.
Because most of R.D. 784's levees were rebuilt in recent years as part of enhanced flood protection through the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority, the proposal wouldn't affect it very strongly, Fordice said.
But it would have an impact on other levees, such as in Marysville and near Wheatland, in the beginning stages of their own levee upgrades, he said.
Whether R.D. 784 ultimately joins a lawsuit will depend on whether the petition succeeds, he added.
Earlier habitat restoration for the elderberry beetle was the subject of a lawsuit against the federal government stemming from the levee collapse in Arboga in 1997.
Some 600 plaintiffs sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alleging a pond it created to replace insect habitat allowed water to seep under a flood wall and destroy it, but a federal judge threw out the case in November 2001. The pond had been built to replace areas built over during levee improvement work that followed the flood of 1986.
CONTACT Howard Yune at 749-4708 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Appeal-Democrat reporter Ben van der Meer contributed to this report.