Federal wildlife officials have temporarily stopped the cutting of cottonwood trees along the St. Joe River, saying the work disturbs bald eagles.
The birds are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The trees are being removed as part of a dike improvement project.
On Tuesday, St. Maries residents told biologist Jim Alto of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they had seen eagles roosting in some of the cottonwoods. They said the eagles flew away when the work crews came in.
Alto issued a stop-work order in the afternoon. Work can resume March 1, when migratory eagles should be gone.
The trees are being removed at the insistence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which says that trees undermine the dikes. Disastrous floods hit St. Maries last winter.
Wildlife officials and environmentalists have decried the loss of habitat, and many local residents are fretting about the loss of beautiful trees along the “Shadowy St. Joe.”
The Meadowhurst Drainage District is responsible for the work on most of the dikes. Work began Saturday and is about 80 percent completed, said district commissioner Joe Epler.
The adjoining Riverdale district hasn’t begun its tree-cutting, but there are fewer trees there.
Epler said he had no problem with the stop-work order, but was glad that most of the tree-cutting on the earthen dikes was completed while the ground was still frozen. Otherwise, it would have delayed well into the summer the major dike reconstruction effort that is planned.
“No one ever contacted us and said this was eagle migratory habitat,” he said. “The first I heard of it was 3:30 today.”
The Corps of Engineers is well aware that wintering eagles must be protected, Alto said. The Fish and Wildlife Service reminded the agency of that in a letter last year regarding dike reconstruction, he said.
Fish and Wildlife encouraged the corps to write a biological assessment of the impact on animals along the river. That didn’t happen, Alto said.
Alto acknowledged that the trees will still be cut, and won’t be there when eagles return next winter.
No one has reported eagle nests in the area. If any where found, the situation would be “dramatically different,” Alto said. No work could be done within a quarter-mile of a nesting site without a written plan to protect it.
Most of the trees remaining to be cut are along Idaho Highway 3, Epler said.
“We probably removed a third of them on the lower end of the dike system,” he said. “Probably on Highway 3, we won’t remove a tenth of them.”
The reason for the difference, he said, is that some natural land remains between the river and the dike on which the highway sits. But in other places, erosion caused largely by power boats has washed away that strip of land - and big trees along with it.
“Probably a dozen cottonwoods have fallen over since last fall,” he said.
On Tuesday, Epler learned that federal money will be available to remove the stumps and compact the soil after the cottonwoods are cut.
Some residents were concerned because it appeared that the stumps and roots would be left to rot, actually making the dike weaker.
State and federal wildlife officials have recommended leaving the trees, saying they do more good than harm when it comes to stabilizing streambanks.
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