On April 26 U.S. District Judge Susan Illston rejected the City of San Francisco’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and five other conservation organizations over the ongoing killing of red-legged frogs at Sharp Park Golf Course (see previous article).
Explaining that new evidence and recent Fish and Wildlife Service restrictions have called into question San Francisco Park Department claims that the frog population at Sharp Park is growing, the court ordered the city to obtain authorization from the Fish and Wildlife Service for golf-course activities that could harm endangered species. The judge ruled that conservation groups have legal standing to bring the case, but stayed the lawsuit until October, when San Francisco could face trial over Endangered Species Act violations if it does not obtain a federal permit.
“The court’s ruling lays bare the damage golf course activities such as draining water from wetlands exact on two of the Bay Area’s most imperiled animals,” said Brent Plater, executive director of the Wild Equity Institute. “We expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to require that the golf course cease killing endangered species and propose a comprehensive mitigation and restoration plan as part of any permit.”
The Park Department argued that draining aquatic feeding and breeding habitats for the California red-legged frog and San Francisco garter snake at Sharp Park Golf Course somehow benefits the species. In rejecting these assertions, the court cited contradictory testimony from the city’s own experts and staff that the golf course activities harm and kill protected wildlife.
The Park Department has killed endangered frogs six of the past 10 winters, and its “compliance plan” for endangered species has been a complete failure. In February, the department was caught again killing threatened red-legged frogs at the course, draining Sharp Park’s wetlands in a failed attempt to prevent frogs from breeding in their historic ponds.
The Washington D.C. public-interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal represents the coalition of conservation groups in the lawsuit.
The Fish and Wildlife Service last year notified the golf course that it was specifically prohibited from handling or moving frog egg masses at Sharp Park and must obtain a permit for any golf course activities affecting protected species. The Service also denied the Park Department’s request to drain wetlands and dredge lagoons at Sharp Park, cynically referred to by the city as “habitat management and scientific studies.” Water pumping, dredging and other activities harmful to frogs can only occur if the department obtains a federal “incidental take” permit with an accompanying conservation plan.
The city-owned golf course at 400-acre Sharp Park in Pacifica is plagued by crumbling infrastructure, annual flooding problems, and ongoing environmental violations. More than three dozen San Francisco community, recreation, environmental, and social-justice groups have called for closing the golf course and creating a more sustainable public park at Sharp Park. A 2011 peer-reviewed scientific study by independent scientists and coastal experts concluded that the most cost-effective option for Sharp Park is to remove the golf course and restore the functions of the original natural ecosystem, which will also provide the most benefit to endangered species.
The Park Department has refused to consider this option, and is instead pursuing a plan that would evict endangered species from the site and bail out the golf course’s financial problems with tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed legislation in December 2011 to prevent this from happening, but Mayor Ed Lee, an avid golfer, vetoed the legislation. Further action by the board is expected this year.