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Species reviews endanger stimulus projects

Sean Ryan
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Municipalities are worried projects that require an endangered species review will not meet the deadlines to obtain federal stimulus money.

“The more issues that are thrown into the equation obviously have a time restraint,” said J.P. Walker, New Berlin city engineer. “Does the restraint call into question the eligibility of the project? It very well could.”

Local governments must find out if their stimulus projects will affect species on the state and federal protected lists, and, if so, those governments must find ways to minimize or compensate for the damage.

Some projects, such as resurfacing jobs that do not expand a road’s footprint or those in areas where no protected species live, would not need reviews.

But the requirement that transportation projects be ready to bid by the end of the year will make it difficult to perform endangered species reviews when needed, said Magdelene Wagner, Pewaukee’s assistant city engineer.

The first problem is municipalities that suspect a project might affect an endangered plant or animal must wait until the growing season begins in May to find out if the species lives in the area, said Eric Parker, senior scientist and principal with Graef, Milwaukee. The survey information is necessary for municipalities to come up with mitigation plans to compensate for damage done to the species, he said.

“You can’t really change that, stimulus package or not,” Parker said. “It is what it is.”

Municipalities usually perform the environmental reviews before working on construction engineering for a project, Wagner said. The process lets cities determine — before paying engineering costs — if a project is viable or if it should be designed around environmental corridors, she said.

But the deadline for stimulus projects means environmental reviews and engineering must be done at the same time, Wagner said.

“You are spending a lot of taxpayer dollars,” she said, “at the risk of not getting any of this stimulus money back.”

Parker and Wagner said it would help if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources dedicate more people to reviewing stimulus project compliance with endangered species laws.

Cathy Carnes, endangered species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Wisconsin ecological field services office, said the stimulus package already increased the number of project applications by 20 percent. The three staffers who evaluate projects are keeping up so far and completing all reviews within 30 days, but the office could soon add more part-time help to keep up, she said.

“If people need an endangered species review,” Carnes said, “they should get it in to us as early as they can.”

The Wisconsin DNR is going through a departmentwide discussion of how it can speed up environmental reviews to keep up with applications for stimulus projects, said Sarah Carter, DNR conservation biologist.

She said it can take several weeks to review projects for compliance with Wisconsin laws protecting certain species, but the review time lengthens when there are more applications or fewer reviewers.

“Certainly,” Carter said, “we try to meet the timelines of those projects whenever we can.”

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