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ORANGE COUNTY, CA-Builders here may soon face a development obstacle stronger than any no-growth group and more fearsome than a gang of bureaucrats. And unlike a homeowners association or elected official with lots of political muscle, the newest foe is a shrimp. Literally.

In a little-noticed statement released on Thursday, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed setting aside a staggering 12,060 acres of Southern California land to protect the Riverside fairy shrimp. The unusual crustaceans are so small that no one even knew they existed until 15 years ago, and literally thousands of them can be held in a child’s hand.

Much of the land that the feds would put off-limits for future development is on the closed El Toro Marine Corps Station, which many local officials and business interests want to convert to a commercial airport that would create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars a year in tax revenue. Hundreds more acres stand in the path of the proposed Foothill South toll road, a 16-mile highway that would ease the region’s worsening traffic problems.

The land targeted by Fish and Wildlife contains vernal pools, “mini-wetlands” that are formed in the rainy season and usually dry up in the summer. Though the pools only last for a few months, they’re nice places for the miniscule shrimp to swim before they all die when the water disappears in July or August.

The vernal pools (and hence the shrimp) are endangered because “they can literally be destroyed by one meathead in a four-wheel-drive truck in an afternoon,” says David Hogan of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. Though the Riverside fairy shrimp wasn’t even discovered until 1985, Hogan adds, it was put on the endangered species list in 1993 because too many pools were being destroyed by commercial and residential development.

As a practical matter, private attorneys say, US Fish and Wildlife officials have little chance of banning all development on the 12,060 acres of Southern California land they have designated as “critical habitat” for the tiny shrimp. However, the designation is the first step toward insisting that private and public sector builders scale back their development plans or take other measures in an effort to ensure the shrimp’s survival.

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