Pierce County, WA: Protecting squirrels may raise road costs

Susan Gordon; The News Tribune

Pierce County, WA - 11/14/02 - Pierce County could spend between $7 million and $10 million to help Western gray squirrels and other wildlife cope with the proposed cross-base highway, officials said.

On Tuesday, County Executive John Ladenburg promised to work with the Tahoma Audubon Society to find a way the highway can accommodate both motorists and animals.

"The county's agreed to do what it can with the construction and design," Ladenburg said. "We don't want the highway to divide habitat."

The extent of the county's commitment could hinge on whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides to put the Western gray squirrel on the endangered species list, county officials said.

The elusive squirrel, which favors the oak woodlands surrounding disappearing Puget Sound prairies, is the largest native tree squirrel in the Northwest.

In July, Tahoma Audubon of Tacoma and the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance of Bellingham sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to force officials to uphold the Endangered Species Act and consider a previous petition to list the squirrel.

Late last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that the rare squirrel may need protection. And last week, a U.S. District Court judge set a June 1 deadline for the decision.

"We're being put on a fast track so the county can complete its environmental impact statement," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ted Thomas.

The proposed 6-mile, multilane, limited access highway would cross remote areas of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base and connect Spanaway to Interstate 5.

Ladenburg said the highway is vital to the Pierce County economy because it would improve access to Frederickson industrial site.

The most recent estimates suggest the road could cost $179 million, and voters would probably have to approve new taxes to pay for it.

Negotiations between county officials and Tahoma Audubon already have begun.

"We recognize the county is going to build this highway," said Kirk Kirkland, Audubon Society spokesman. "The main concern is wildlife and their survival. This resolves our primary issues."

Tuesday's announcement means portions of the highway could be elevated to allow animals to pass beneath it. Also, the county may purchase additional land to compensate for habitat loss, Ladenburg said.

But none of the plans is final.

"Somebody could still try an environmental lawsuit against us even after this process," Ladenburg admitted.

No one knows how many Western gray squirrels inhabit the area of the proposed cross-base highway. In the early 1990s, about 100 pairs were found. But when a similar area was surveyed in 1999, researchers found only six squirrels.

"That leads us to believe there's been quite a decline in the population," Thomas said.

State officials list the Western gray squirrel as threatened with extinction, but state law doesn't mandate the habitat protections required by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Western gray squirrels are larger than their Eastern gray squirrel cousins, which are not native to Washington, but are commonly seen in Puget Sound cities. Western grays also have bushier tails. Their backs are silver gray and their bellies are creamy white. Their ears are long and are not tufted.


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