Woodpecker Halts Ark. Irrigation Project

By ANDREW DeMILLO
The Associated Press
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 8:38 PM

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A federal judge halted a $320 million irrigation project Thursday for fear it could disturb the habitat of a woodpecker that may or may not be extinct.

The dispute involves the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last confirmed sighting of the bird in North America was in 1944, and scientists had thought the species was extinct until 2004, when a kayaker claimed to have spotted one in the area. But scientists have been unable to confirm the sighting.

Still, U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson said that for purposes of the lawsuit brought by environmental groups, he had to assume the woodpecker exists in the area. And he ruled that federal agencies may have violated the Endangered Species Act by not studying the risks fully.

"When an endangered species is allegedly jeopardized, the balance of hardships and public interest tips in favor of the protected species. Here there is evidence" that the ivory-billed woodpecker may be jeopardized, he said.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation had sued the Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the project to build a pumping station that would draw water from the White River would kill trees that house the birds and that noise from the station would cause the woodpeckers stress.

The judge said the Corps and the Interior Department must conduct further studies before proceeding.

The Corps began building the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project last year, about 14 miles from where the bird was supposedly spotted. It suspended work in mid-March to keep from exceeding its budget and is scheduled to resume construction in October with the start of a new fiscal year.

About $80 million has been spent so far. The project is scheduled to begin delivering water to farmers in 2010 or 2011.

The kayaker's claim to have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker in the woods near the White River caused a sensation in scientific circles. But more than 100 volunteers and researchers who spent weeks last winter trying to find conclusive evidence of the bird's existence came back empty-handed.

The Corps had conducted a study showing the project would not significantly harm the woodpecker's habitat, but environmental groups said the study was too narrow.

Under the judge's order, the agencies must evaluate any ivory-bill nests and forage sites within 2 1/2 miles of the construction project.

The pumping station would draw 158 billion gallons from the White River per year. Authorities said it is needed because the main aquifer beneath eastern Arkansas's soybean, cotton and rice fields is running out of water and could run out by 2015, causing economic hardship.

A Justice Department lawyer said this year that a one-month delay would cost the Corps as much as $264,000, and a six-month wait $3 million.


© 2006 The Associated Press