Benewah County won’t have to worry about protecting bald eagles during levee reconstruction if legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Larry Craig becomes law.
The flood-control work would be exempt from the Endangered Species Act under terms of an amendment that the Idaho Republican added to a Senate appropriations bill.
“It’s very narrowly tailored; it isn’t aimed at overhauling the Endangered Species Act,” said Craig spokesman Michael Franzen.
The appropriations bill should be on the Senate floor for a vote by early next week. If approved, it would go to the president for his signature.
Work to upgrade the levees along the St. Joe River was stopped in February by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s when its biologists became aware that cutting down cottonwoods was disturbing eagles, a threatened species.
Some essential repairs are under way at St. Maries this week under an emergency provision of the Endangered Species Act.
But Benewah County officials wanted to complete a major reconstruction project by now.
Instead, work hardly has begun. Fish and Wildlife wanted 35 acres of habitat purchased and more trees planted to make up for the loss of the cottonwoods. And that’s too expensive, according to the Economic Development Administration, which is paying for the levee project.
There may be some movement in the standoff.
“We have sent EDA a letter today indicating that there is some flexibility in what needs to be done for the eagle,” said Bill Shake, manager of Fish and Wildlife activities in the Columbia Basin.
While the bureaucrats debate the issue, Craig worries that the Endangered Species Act is giving greater value to the birds than to property and even human lives that might be lost in St. Maries.
His amendment would change that.
It applies only to natural disasters and threats to public safety in 1996 and 1997, said Franzen. It doesn’t apply to new projects, just reconstruction, maintenance and operation.
Still, the amendment has upset environmentalists. It is similar to one introduced in the House.
“Here we go again,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife. “The Congress claims it is greener but attaches a backdoor rider to an appropriations bill that would devastate the Endangered Species Act.”
The word “devastate” is hyperbole in this case, said Susan Weller of the Idaho Audubon Council. But she’s also unhappy with Craig’s amendment.
It would undermine the Endangered Species Act, she said, and do nothing about the fact that people are living in a floodplain. The land behind the levees won’t be entirely safe even after the levees are fixed, she noted.
Weller is an expert bird-watcher who alerted Fish and Wildlife to the presence of eagles in the cottonwoods. The Idaho Audubon Council has sued to try to stop more cutting, citing the Endangered Species Act, among other laws.