Judge stops $320 million irrigation project

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - A federal judge has temporarily stopped a White River irrigation project in eastern Arkansas, saying it may disturb the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson acknowledged controversy over whether the bird exists, but said that for purposes of the lawsuit he ruled that it does.

He said federal agencies may have violated the Endangered Species Act by not doing further study on the bird's habitat that could be affected by the $320 million project that began last summer.

Environmentalists brought the lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department. The Army Corps began the project to provide water to farmers who have been using an underground aquifer that is going dry.

Wilson said in his ruling Thursday that when an endangered species is allegedly jeopardized, the balance of hardships and public interest tips in favor of the protected species.

Wilson said the federal agencies must do futher surveys on the habitat within two and a half miles of any construction site, and must identify and inspect nesting, roosting or foraging spots in all trees 12 inches or more in areas that will be most affected by changes in the water levels.

The judge said surveys also must be done in areas next to any canals and pipelines. The corps began construction on the Grand Prairie Irrigation Project 14 miles from where the bird was spotted.

Scientists say the bird's home range is 17 miles. Before it was spotted in eastern Arkansas in 2004, the ivory billed woodpecker was believed to be extinct.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)