Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wolves complicate Navy's airfield plans

by Wade Rawlins, Staff Writer

Endangered red wolves prowl the pine bogs and farm fields of Washington and Beaufort counties where the Navy wants to build a jet landing strip, according to federal tracking data released Wednesday by an environmental advocacy group.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which is challenging the Navy's plan to build the airfield near a national wildlife refuge, said eight wolves in several packs have moved onto the refuge and surrounding private farmland near the proposed landing field site in the three years since the Navy studied the area.

The presence of red wolves, an endangered species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to reintroduce in the wild for two decades, could further complicate the Navy's plans to locate an airfield near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

"It's another strong reason backed up by the Endangered Species Act that the Navy should look for an alternative site," said Derb Carter, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The Navy wants to acquire 30,000 acres in Washington and Beaufort counties and build a $230 million runway for jet pilots to practice landing on aircraft carriers.

A spokesman for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., said Wednesday evening that the Navy had not seen the Southern Environmental Law Center study.

"It would be inappropriate to respond to information that has not been received," Lt. Cmdr. K.C. Marshall said. "The Navy continues to work with agencies to update information in the supplemental environmental impact statement."

Navy's ideal site

Navy officials say the sparse population and lack of development make the Washington-Beaufort county site ideal for its planes, which will be based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia and at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock.

Environmentalists have long argued that the site's proximity to a wildlife refuge, home in winter to more than 100,000 tundra swans and snow geese, conflicts with the mission of the refuge and poses a severe risk of bird-aircraft collisions.

The environmental group sued, and federal courts found deficiencies in the Navy's original environmental studies. As a result, the Navy is conducting additional environmental assessments.

Mike Bryant, manager of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, where the Red Wolf Recovery Program is housed, confirmed the environmentalists' assertion that red wolves roam the area where the airstrip is planned.

"There are wolves that use the area regularly, as I understand it," Bryant said. "Obviously, the red wolves are highly mobile but they are territorial. They generally work a particular area."

On endangered list

Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The national red wolf recovery effort has been under way since 1987, when Fish and Wildlife released a pair in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in Dare County.

Their recovery is considered important because they help keep the populations of deer, raccoons and small rodents in check.

Now, the wild population in Eastern North Carolina stands at about 100 animals that move in packs through a five-county area. About 70 wolves are outfitted with radio collars, allowing wildlife biologists to track their movements.

"We would have concerns about any impacts on wolves in the recovery area," Bryant said.

Because the reintroduced wolves carry the classification of an experimental population, Bryant said the protection of individual wolves might not be required for the survival of the species. But he added: "It's important for the recovery of the species that they do well in this county."

Law center's letter

The Southern Environmental Law Center obtained the radio-tracking data on the wolves from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In a Wednesday letter to the Navy, the environmental group said eight red wolves used the proposed landing field site near the refuge. One red wolf den with three pups was directly off the north end of the proposed runway.

Carter said the radio-tracking studies show that 12 red wolves inhabit another proposed Navy site in Hyde County. He said construction and operation of a landing field at either site would harm the red wolf and reduce the likelihood of recovery of the species.

Because the reintroduced red wolf population is found on a national wildlife refuge, Carter said, it has the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which bars federal agencies from taking actions that would jeopardize continued existence of the species.

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