Whooping Cranes must be protected from R-Project powerline
December 14, 2018
My legislative aide and I drove to Denver to visit with the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently. I wanted to ask them questions about NPPD's ill-conceived R-Project powerline that is planned to tear through the heart of Nebraska's Sandhills so a handful of people can make money off a terribly flawed government program.
I was told by Noreen Walsh, regional director, and her chief biologist that there was "no reasonable expectation of take for whooping cranes" for NPPD's R-Project power line. This is government speak that means: Probably not going to kill whooping cranes. This turned out to be a false statement.
The R-Project had to undergo an Environmental Impact Study ran by USFWS. Analyzing the impact the project has on threatened and endangered species is one of the things the EIS has to do under federal law. During this process it was determined by USFWS biologists that there was a "reasonable expectation of take" for the North American burying beetle, an insect on the endangered species list. Consequently, NPPD had to apply for an Incidental Take Permit. This acts as a license from the federal government for someone to accidently kill (take) wildlife that is on the endangered species list.
The impact the R-Project has on whooping cranes was also part of the EIS. It used very old and sparse data. Using this old data USFWS biologists concluded there was "no reasonable expectation of take for whooping cranes." Several months ago, a "new" study, that was partially funded by the USFWS, was brought to light. This study involved over 50 individual birds fitted with GPS trackers. The resulting data set was new, large and detailed. The biologists analyzed the data and even obtained an independent review from a wildlife biologist at Oklahoma State University. They concluded the "new" data definitely demonstrated there was a reasonable expectation of take (would likely kill) migrating whooping cranes. There are only about 450 birds left. So the question is why is the regional director of the Mountain-Prairie Regional Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refusing to use this data? Why is her chief biologist saying the "science was bad" when several other USFWS biologists and an independent review all say this study was the best available science? Why were the two USFWS biologists stationed in Nebraska, who have lead the project from the start, suddenly removed from the project when this new data came to light? Also, why is USFWS in Denver willing to ignore Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act by not including the new data in this study? Furthermore, why is NPPD unwilling to use the best available science to protect our endangered species?
I made a two-day trip to Denver, and met face-to-face with these government officials to learn answers to these questions. I was not satisfied with their answers, so I spoke in a conference call with Margaret Everson, the acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C. On this call, the regional director in the Denver Office (Walsh) may have been less than honest with Everson. She said her office was considering the new whooping crane telemetry data when just a week ago, she told me to my face in Denver her office was not considering this data and that it was "bad science." Has she changed her mind?
The bottom line is NPPD's R-Project power line could follow another route that doesn't pose a threat to endangered species and we could avoid all these problems, but they refuse to change it. I have been misled every step of the way and I am sick of getting the run around. I am forced to continue up the chain of command. I will travel to Washington, D.C., to speak with the secretary of the interior before the session starts. At the very least, NPPD could do the right thing and insist the whooping crane be made the subject of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Study to their project.
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