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Developer to Pay $1 Million for Damaging Salamander Habitat

By Bob Egelko
March 12, 2016

Photo: David Paul Morris, Special To The Chronicle. Wildlife Management, an East Bay development company, and its president James Tong admitted polluting a pond that supported the threatened California tiger salamander.
Photo: David Paul Morris, Special To The Chronicle. Wildlife Management, an East Bay development company, and its president James Tong admitted polluting a pond that supported the threatened California tiger salamander.

An East Bay development company and its president, who admitted polluting a pond that supported the threatened California tiger salamander and forging documents to hide their actions, has been ordered to pay $1 million to conservation funds and preserve 107 acres of land as habitat for endangered species.

James Tong and his company, Wildlife Management, pleaded guilty in January to a criminal violation of the Endangered Species Act. They admitted that while doing grading work for the Dublin Ranch North real estate project, they caused sediment to run into the nearby Standard Pacific Pond, which provides habitat for breeding and shelter of the tiger salamander.

In a separate no-contest plea to securities fraud, Tong acknowledged that the company submitted a forged document to the city of Dublin in March 2012 falsely stating that Wildlife Management had purchased $3.2 million in credits from the Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank to offset its pollution of the pond.

In a sentencing agreed to by both sides, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar of San Francisco ordered Tong and the company on Friday to pay $1 million in restitution to fish and wildlife commissions in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Tong was also ordered to provide a “conservation easement” that will prohibit development, by current and future owners, on 107 acres of Brown Ranch in Contra Costa County worth an estimated $3 million, reserving the land as endangered species habitat. The sentence additionally requires Tong, 70, of Pleasanton, to spend four months in home detention and perform 100 hours of community service.

The California tiger salamander, listed as a threatened species since 2004, has been eliminated from 58 percent of its historic breeding sites and has lost 75 percent of its habitat, according to government documents.

Tong emigrated from his native China to the Bay Area with little money in 1969, at age 23, and became a successful and wealthy developer.

In a letter to the court, Tong said his actions in this case, “Have greatly damaged all that I have worked to achieve in my personal and business life,” and he hopes to regain public trust while paying for his wrongdoing.

SAVING THE CALIFORNIA TIGER SALAMANDER

With its wide mouth charmingly outlined in yellow, the California tiger salamander always looks like it’s smiling. But this beautiful amphibian is a discriminating species that can only thrive in unique — and now extremely rare — habitats. As California’s vernal pools, grasslands and oak woodlands disappear, the tiger salamander has fewer and fewer reasons to grin. The species’ plight is particularly extreme in Sonoma County, where development threatens 95 percent of remaining salamander habitat, and the Santa Barbara population — although it was luckily listed as federally endangered in 2000 — is still on the verge of winking out.

The Center has advocated hard to protect the California tiger salamander under both the federal and the California Endangered Species Act, as well as to force designation of critical habitat. Thanks to our actions, the Sonoma and Santa Barbara populations have been federally listed as endangered, the central California population is considered threatened, central California salamanders have been granted critical habitat, and the Sonoma population is on its way toward habitat protections. The California Fish and Game Commission was ordered to accept the Center’s 2004 petition to list the entire species statewide, and in early 2010 finally granted the species state protection.

However, the critical habitat designation for the central California population — made in 2005 under political influence — illegally slashed critical habitat in half, and in the same year, the Sonoma County population’s critical habitat was completely eliminated. The Center submitted a notice of intent to sue the Bush administration over these and 53 other wrongfully made Endangered Species Act decisions in 2007, and we sued the next year. Our efforts paid off in February 2011, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate 50,855 acres of critical habitat for the Sonoma County salamanders — leaving out some important areas, but making a crucial step toward salamander recovery. Still, none of the California tiger salamander populations have recovery plans — so to earn them one, we filed a lawsuit in 2012. Later that year we secured a court-approved settlement requiring the Service to develop recovery plans for all three populations of California tiger salamanders within the next five years; the Santa Barbara County population received a draft plan in 2015. And in March 2016, the Service released a draft recovery plan for the threatened central California population of the California tiger salamander that calls for protection of 400,000 acres of breeding ponds and adjacent uplands.

Through our Pesticides Reduction Campaign, we’re also challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s registration and authorization-for-use of 46 toxic pesticides in and upstream of habitats for San Francisco Bay Area endangered species, including the California tiger salamander.