- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2000

The shortnose sturgeon is probably no one's idea of a monster. Except for some fishermen and biologists, few persons have probably even seen it. But it may turn out to be one of the most frightening animals local officials, commuters and truckers have ever heard of: As an endangered species, the sturgeon might yet endanger the construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

On Wednesday an environmental watchdog group announced it would file suit against the federal government for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in connection with bridge construction work. That project harms both eagles and sturgeon and their habitat, says the National Wilderness Institute (NWI), and even government agencies must be accountable for it. "There is one set of rules," Rob Gordon of NWI told this newspaper's Audrey Hudson, "and it applies to rulers as well."

The organization is less interested in stopping construction work, it says, than in highlighting the special treatment that politically powerful, government-backed interests receive when it comes to complying with the act. The federal government itself acknowledges that the Wilson Bridge project is likely to force eagles to abandon a nearby nest, causing the deaths of up to two chicks. Notwithstanding the fact that the eagles are listed as endangered species, government officials have signed off on the project. Meanwhile, that same federal government is blocking the effort of an elderly Fairfax County man named John Taylor to build a one-story house for his wife, who is afflicted with Parkinson's disease, because it would somehow threaten an eagle nesting 90 feet away. Why the rough treatment for Mr. Taylor, whose property is 7 miles downstream from the Wilson Bridge, and not for the feds?

The handling of the shortnose sturgeon is also problematic for the government. Listed as endangered as early as 1967, the sturgeon inhabits East Coast rivers like the Potomac, albeit in dwindling numbers. Commercial fishermen caught one in the Potomac downstream from the bridge as recently as 1998 as part of a government survey program. Biologists believe the most likely spawning grounds in the Potomac for the sturgeon are at Little Falls, some 13 miles upstream from the bridge. So both commuters and sturgeon have to navigate the Wilson Bridge.

The government acknowledges how important the Potomac sturgeon population is. A 1998 government recovery plan notes: "The loss of a single shortnose sturgeon population segment may risk the permanent loss of unique genetic information that is critical to the survival and recovery of the species." But federal agencies think they can blow up the six-lane bridge without harming the sturgeon below, in part because the work includes plans to dig up all the clam beds nearby that might have attracted sturgeon to remain in the area. That might seem like a sensible solution to the problem, except that the ESA as interpreted by the courts does not permit someone to starve an animal out of its habitat.

The government also proposes to use special underwater barriers to protect sturgeon from the blasts, "although the cost, level of effort, and time required would preclude extensive use" of the barriers. Sorry, "cost" has never been an excuse when it comes to protection of endangered animals. At least it's not when the government applies the rules to someone else.

Exactly how the suit will affect the bridge isn't clear as yet. No one, least of all NWI, denies the bridge has to be replaced. Legislation exempting the project from ESA requirements might solve the problem, but it might be hard to justify to individuals and businesses who have labored under the act up to now. If it's necessary to exempt the bridge, then provide exemptions for all.

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