Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Fish and Game frowns on Cove Springs

Wildlife concerns to take center stage in Thursday?s hearing

Express Staff Writer

A herd of elk gathers on the Cove Ranch property in late fall 2006. Photo by Mountain Express

Cove Springs, a proposed 338-unit housing development south of Bellevue, could degrade vital wildlife habitat and lead to human-animal conflicts, specifically with mountain lions and wolves, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The county's review of the proposal will continue Thursday night, Feb. 8, with the Planning and Zoning Commission sinking its teeth into wildlife and agriculture issues. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Old County Courthouse in Hailey. Fish and Game officials will be on hand, mainly to answer questions.

Review of water issues will resume during the planned Feb. 22 hearing.

Cove Springs would be built on 600 acres of the 4,630-acre Cove Ranch property, which is located east of Gannett Road about five miles south of Bellevue. The developers maintain that the plan leaves intact a large tract of open space, thereby reducing its environmental impacts.

Several citizens have already expressed concern that the development will seriously degrade habitat important to several animal species, including sage grouse, deer and elk.

"There is a lot of wildlife on that parcel of land," said David Parrish, supervisor of Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region, which includes the Wood River Valley. "As proposed, we have some specific issues with the project."

In early December, a herd of 75 to 100 elk was seen grazing on the ranch.

"We think there is an alternative out there that will minimize impacts to wildlife," Parrish said. "The main one is to move all of the housing units onto the (agricultural) land and not develop up in the cove itself."

The applicants are proposing to retain the current farming and ranching practices on the property and locate all of the housing above the valley floor in a series of elevated valleys.

"We want them to stay away from the fingered valleys and move down to farmland," Parrish said.

The ranch's south-facing hillsides often melt in the winter, providing forage for elk.

Parrish said if the development is not moved or abandoned altogether the impacts to wildlife won't be limited to habitat loss.

Predators follow prey, which could lead to conflicts with residents and their pets.

"That's one of the issues we have with developing on large winter range," Parrish said. "(Predators) will follow the animals onto elk range. We have problems every year up there in the Wood River Valley with mountain lions killing people's pets. I'm sure we will see some of that with wolves."

Roger Olson, a Fish and Game conservation officer stationed in the Wood River Valley, said a group of wolves—not yet a confirmed pack with a breeding pair of adults—are traveling and feeding in the Deer Creek area, just west of Hailey.

And in response to evidence that wolves were recently hunting in the Quigley area east of Hailey, Parrish said he "wouldn't be surprised."

"They will go wherever the food is," he said.

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