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Rare Snakes Near San Francisco Airport Have Agencies Treading Softly

August 17, 1985

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The garter snake, a colorful and rare species that has eked out a fragile existence in a vacant grassy field near the San Francisco International Airport, is getting special treatment from state and local agencies.

The snakes, which have been protected by state and federal endangered species laws since 1967, have prompted a change in a $35 million drainage project aimed at expanding airport service.

Some 600 of the creatures are living near the vestiges of their original habitat, a drainage ditch cutting across the 180-acre field, said John Wharton, a State Fish and Game Department researcher.

The snakes are survivors of an earlier time when the field was a freshwater swamp, Wharton said. Now the area is surrounded by concrete and criss-crossed by electrical power transmission towers.

Developers have eyed the site for a new San Francisco Giants stadium, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is considering a new Bay Area Rapid Transit District station on the land, airport spokesman Ron Wilson said.

″The land is very desireable property, and it’s the only thing the airport has got at this point,″ Wilson said. ″There are no plans now, but it is unrealistic to think development will never be considered for that piece of land.″

The garter snakes, with their red, black and yellow-green stripes and bright red head, nest in animal burrows and feed on small amphibians like frogs and tadpoles, Wharton said.

″It doesn’t look like a place where you would expect to find an endangered species,″ Wharton said. ″But they appear to be thriving.″

Wharton said they became endangered when development in the area slowly did away with most of the small ponds and canals. The most recent encroachment has been construction of a mammoth freeway project linking the airport with Interstate 380 and upgrading adjacent interchanges.

Bob Halligan of the California Department of Transportation said the garter snake was discovered on the property in the early 1970s during an environmental study of the roadway project’s feasibility.

To ensure the snakes’ suvival, Caltrans is building an improved drainage channel.

″We are building a new drainage channel and will plant vegetation ... on it,″ Halligan said. ″They will be taken care of.″

But for now, Wilson said the airport is careful about not disturbing the creatures.

″Given the situation, it is pretty surprising how well they are doing,″ Wharton added.

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