Squirrel-friendly highway in Pierce County could cost millions extra



Pierce County, WA - Sure, it may be a little acorn-eating rodent that is almost half bushy tail, but the Western gray squirrel appears to have scored a multimillion-dollar victory in Pierce County.

That's because Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg has said he'll work with the Tahoma Audubon Society in finding a way to protect the squirrels, along with other wild animals, when the county builds a new highway through Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base to connect Spanaway to Interstate 5.

And that could mean an extra $7 million to $10 million.

That's right. Although state voters turned down Referendum 51 last week to improve roads for human commuters, it appears the squirrels will get some multimillion-dollar roadside assistance.

The proposed six-mile, multilane highway would cut through some of the last remaining Puget Sound-area prairie habitat favored by the squirrels.

Environmental groups say the rare rodent needs the help. The surrounding suburban areas have cut into its habitat, isolating the squirrel and making breeding more difficult.

A traditionally built highway, they say, would further isolate pockets of the squirrels.

"The issue has been for years what do you do with all the animals displaced from suburban areas by development in Spanaway and Lakewood," said Kirk Kirkland, spokesman for the Tahoma Audubon Society of Tacoma.

"The Western gray squirrel. . .is dependant on prairie areas. And one of the prairie remnants is right in the path of the cross base highway."

No one is sure how many of the Western gray squirrels still live in the area of the proposed highway.

One count in the 1990s put it at 100 breeding pairs, another, more recent survey put it at six. The state lists it as a threatened species.

Ron Klein, a spokesman for John Ladenburg, the county executive, said while jokes have sprung up over building highway overpasses for the squirrels, the truth is a little more grounded.

The current plan is to build a flat highway, and to purchase additional land that can be set aside for habitat for squirrels and other wildlife in the region to mitigate for any territory lost to the road.

"We'll put it (the highway) on supports over natural depressions, instead of filling them in," Klein said. "The wildlife will be able to pass through there. We laughed, too, at the idea of overpasses."

Klein, however, conceded that the plan will cost more than conventional construction.

"It's slightly more expensive," Klein said.

"The main expense for mitigation, to buy property and make it suitable for squirrels. Wherever there is a wetland, we'll put it on stilts. We'll never fill a wetland, " he said.

All told, the highway is estimated to cost $179 million, and voters will likely have to approve new taxes to fund it.

As for the Western gray squirrel, it's the state's largest and prefers stands of oak trees or mixed hardwood-conifer woods.

Last July, the Tahoma Audubon Society sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to uphold the Endangered Species Act and to list the squirrel as endangered, Kirkland said.

A U.S. District Court judge in Portland told the agency it must decide on the listing by June 1, he said.

The news that Ladenburg plans on spending a significant sum to help the squirrel and other wildlife in the area was welcome, Kirkland said.

"We're quite delighted," he said. "We've been talking to John Ladenburg since he came into office (about the highway). He's been accommodating. He has a strong environmental record."

Ladenburg said yesterday it was an easy choice to build an environmentally friendly highway.

"The Cross-Base Highway will be built," he said. "And it will be built sooner if we involve the environmental community in the process. It makes a lot more sense to hash out our differences over a conference table than a judge's bench."


Impressively large, Western gray squirrels are silver-gray with white bellies and large, bushy tails.
They're found in hardwood, and mixed hardwood-conifer habitats in western Oregon and in Puget Sound region about as far north as Tacoma.

Acorns seem to constitute its principal food.


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