Friday, February 16, 2007

Will Cove Springs harm wildlife?

Scientists offer conflicting reports, again

Express Staff Writer

Two moose dart through a Wood River Valley subdivision. The impact of new development on wildlife took center stage during a hearing conducted by the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission Thursday, Feb. 8. Photo by David N. Seelig

In the fashion of previous hearings, scientists offered conflicting reports of Cove Springs' potential impact on the area's abundant wildlife during a hearing with the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission last Thursday, Feb. 8.

Rob Tiedemann, a wildlife biologist hired by the applicants, claimed the proposed 338-unit development five miles south of Bellevue would not have a significant impact on the area's mule deer and elk, which he claimed have a "tendency to habituate" to human presence. The footprint of the development could "eliminate" one sage grouse "lek" on the property, "but none of us truly know how these birds will react."

Leks are display areas vital to sage grouse during mating seasons, when male birds engage in a unique form of avian flirtation.

Meanwhile, Mike McDonald, an environmental biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and Gary Schilling, a private wildlife biologist contracted by the county, said the development would be far more harmful to wildlife than Tiedemann suggested.

McDonald said Fish and Game "maintains a high level of concern" about the proposal and that it has a "high potential for direct and indirect disturbance on wildlife."

McDonald said about 200 elk and 200 mule deer winter around Cove Ranch, which is wedged between Gannett Road to the west and Bureau of Land Management land to the east. He characterized the 4,630-acre ranch as a "significant value for wildlife."

Shilling echoed McDonald, saying the "footprint as it exists will pose a significant impact to wildlife, particularly elk and mule deer habitat."

He added that he's "afraid" that the development, if approved in its current form, will eliminate the local population of sage grouse.

"They are highly sensitive to any type of disturbance," Shilling said about the prized game bird, which conservationists want to be listed as a federally protected endangered species.

The disparity between the experts was reminiscent of a previous hearing that dealt with the proposal's potential impact on water. The applicant's water scientist said the development would not impact water quality or quantity. The county's consultant was not as optimistic.

The applicants have touted their proposal as a progressive development that will incorporate "green" building techniques and preserve the area's open spaces and rich agricultural tradition.

The development would be condensed on 600 acres, and farming would continue on about 1,200 acres.

In an effort to preserve the area's sweeping views, the development would be set back from Gannett Road and seep into a series of small valleys largely out of site from passing travelers.

On Feb. 8, the applicants displayed a photo taken by a Mountain Express photographer that shows a large herd of elk sprawled across the agricultural fields adjacent to Gannett Road. The developers argued that the photo proves the agricultural fields, which will not be developed, are just as vital to wildlife as the sage-covered hillsides.

But Shilling and Kaz Thea, also a private widllife biologist, countered that elk and deer typically only graze on agricultural fields during the "shoulder seasons," or only a few weeks out of the year.

Public comment was not nearly as lopsided last Thursday as it had been in the past, when the overwhelming majority of citizens stated opposition to the development. About half of the 20 people who spoke at Thursday's hearing supported the project.

But many said they know the developers and believe they are good people who are genuinely striving to produce the best and most sensible development possible.

"That doesn't make it right," said Fred Brossy, who grew up on the ranch in the 1970s and is opposed to the development. "That doesn't mean you should rubber stamp it."

John Stevenson, who owns a farm in the south county, said if the applicants want "to do the right thing, what the community wants, why (don't they) voluntarily apply under the new ordinances?"

Stevenson was referring to the new 2025 land-use ordinances, which slashed development potential in the south county in order to preserve agricultural traditions and open space and curb sprawl.

The hearing process will resume Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey. The meeting will begin with the continued review of wildlife and agriculture before the P&Z shifts its focus back to water-related issues.

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