Fake “trees” must be installed along the St. Joe River levees to replace cottonwoods that were cut in the name of flood control.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is insisting that Benewah County build the artificial eagle perches. The agency also wants cottonwoods planted on 35 acres elsewhere along the river. That eventually would create new places for bald eagles to hang out.
“We’d like six miles of new habitat, (to replace) what we’ve lost,” said biologist Rick Donaldson.
The eagles, which perch above the river looking for fish, are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The cottonwoods are being removed at the insistence of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Engineers contend that trees on the top and sides of the man-made levees can be wrenched out by floodwaters, weakening the levees and increasing the risk of lost lives and property damage.
Removing the trees is the first step in a big levee-improvement project at St. Maries. It will be paid for by the federal Economic Development Administration.
The EDA must agree to the conditions before the controversial cutting resumes. It came to a halt Feb. 10.
That’s when federal biologist Jim Alto visited the site, and learned that the tree removal had scared away eagles. He ordered the project stopped. Then he helped write a report about how the levee project will affect the eagles, and what legally must be done to protect them.
EDA officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene with the Fish and Wildlife service and the Corps of Engineers, to discuss the requirements.
Replacing the destroyed shoreline habitat by planting cottonwoods and other trees within 2 miles of the levee project.
The new habitat must total 35 acres, in parcels no smaller than 10 acres. The planting must be done in areas that have been largely cleared of trees. The land must be owned by the state or federal government, or the private owner must agree to preserve the trees.
Placement of four or five artificial perch “trees” on each acre of levee where cottonwoods have been removed.
That applies to the residential portion of the Meadowhurst levee, where 308 trees were cut; and along the Riverdale levee, where cutting has yet to take place. Perches will not be required along Idaho Highway 3, where additional trees were cut.
The perches could be built from timber. Or they could be actual cut trees, such as cedar or ponderosa pine. They must be 60 to 100 feet high and have at least three “limbs” capable of holding a 20-pound eagle.
Other requirements include limiting construction and maintenance to March 1-Oct. 1, when fewer eagles are present; keeping vehicles and snowmobiles off the levee roads; and posting signs that tell people to keep their distance from the birds.
The EDA is calculating the cost of the Fish and Wildlife requirements, said agency spokeswoman Ella Rusinko.
“Cost definitely is an issue. If it goes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars …” Rusinko said, adding: “We’re negotiating with them to come to a satisfactory conclusion.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Benewah County caught in dispute Even if it meets the Endangered Species Act requirements, the removal of cottonwoods along the St. Joe River project may not be allowed to proceed. That’s because Benewah County is caught in a wrestling match between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Idaho Department of Lands. The corps insists that the county remove the trees or lose out on federal assistance the next time a flood hits. The state contends that Benewah County will continue to violate the Idaho Forest Practices Act if it cuts more trees. “Federal rules don’t override Idaho law, and they have to comply with both,” said Jim Colla, who enforces state logging regulations. “The corps is not going to yield, and we’re not going to yield.” The Forest Practices Act applies because the county has been selling the cottonwoods for pulp, making it a commercial operation. The state can’t be selective, Colla said, and choose not to enforce the law when government agencies are involved. “Many loggers are watching this one,” he said. Like the federal biologists, Colla believes the removal of cottonwoods won’t prevent erosion of the earthen levees, and may well contribute to it.