February 7, 2006

Judge May Halt Project to Protect Bird

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - A federal judge heard arguments Monday over whether a vast irrigation project intended to help farmers in eastern Arkansas will harm the rare ivory-billed woodpecker.

U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson was asked by environmentalists to temporarily stop the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project and order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct more environmental studies on the bird's habitat.

The judge said he would rule as soon as possible and might have a telephone conference with the lawyers before making a decision.

Work began on the $320 million project last summer with construction of a pump station. The station is expected to be complete, if allowed to proceed, in two years. The project would draw 158 billion gallons per year from the White River. Farmers have been using underground aquifers but their continued use threatens to deplete that natural resource.

Attorneys for the National Wildlife Federation and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation argued Monday that the project will kill off trees and its noise will stress the bird.

The bird was believed to be extinct until kayaker and bird watcher Gene Sparling spotted the animal two years ago and scientists confirmed its existence in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge near Brinkley. The U.S. Interior Department last spring announced the bird's rediscovery.

Plaintiffs lawyer John Kostyack said Monday that 135 acres of forest will be destroyed to construct the pump station and an entire species of trees will die when the water is withdrawn. He said the bird's habitat includes mature trees but the trees lost with the project take 80-100 years to mature.

In addition, he said, the 14 miles between where the bird was spotted and the pumping site is not wide enough because the bird's home range is 17 miles.

"This is one of the most endangered birds in the world," Kostyack told the judge. But "the Corps wants to move this project ahead as quickly as they can because they fear this bird will be a death blow to the project."

The corps conducted a study that concluded the irrigation project would not significantly destroy the ivory-billed's habitat. But the environmental groups allege the study was flawed and too narrow, and failed to comply with federal law that protects endangered species. They said the government also should have gotten public comment for the survey.

"If we allow the Corps to get away with what it is proposing, we will simply never know the impacts of this project," Kostyack said.

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Bridget McNeil said that, after the woodpecker was captured on tape, work on the irrigation project stopped until the corps determined that the pumping station would not harm the bird's habitat. McNeil said most of the pipeline will follow roadway rights-of-way or will be placed in farms or small stands of trees, she said.

A 30-day delay of the project would cost the corps as much as $264,000 and a six-month wait would cost more than $3 million, she said.

She also told the judge that one of the plaintiffs' own experts has questioned whether the bird was even spotted in the area.