Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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CA High-Speed Rail Crews Ruined Fox Den

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Even before the California high-speed rail project broke ground last month, work crews ran afoul of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by destroying a potential den of the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

In a Jan. 26 letter to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, FWS deputy assistant field supervisor Dan Russell said two areas dug up by work crews this past summer - amounting to nine acres total - fell outside the construction footprint agreed to by the authority, FWS and the Federal Railroad Administration in 2012.

One 7-acre parcel closer to Fresno was set up as a heavy-equipment staging area by contractor Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons in June 2014. Later that month, work crews conducted tests for underground pilings on a 2-acre site along the Fresno River near the city of Madera.

Both sites are considered habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox - the smallest species of fox in North America. The nocturnal animal has been on the federal endangered species list since 1967.

Grading work on the 7-acre parcel likely destroyed a potential kit fox den. And neither site was included in the biological assessment for the Fresno-to-Merced segment approved by the feds, Russell said.

Adding insult to injury, the state rail authority didn't notify FWS of the breach in writing until Oct. 21 - four months after crews dug up the sites.

The rail authority blamed its contractor for moving ahead with the project before it had a chance to amend the 2012 environmental agreements. Contractor Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons said its own biologist had determined the den was no longer active.

Besides using land - kit fox habitat - outside the project footprint, Russell said the state has missed filing weekly acreage reports as well as field reports, its own biological assessments and daily monitoring reports per the 2012 agreements.

Furthermore, the rail authority hasn't filed a single "take" report - an accounting of how many animals have been killed or displaced - since it began prep work for the high-speed rail project in 2012, Russell said. He added that none of the agreements authorized the destruction of any San Joaquin kit fox den.

The rail authority has responded to Russell's letter by asking to reopen Fish and Wildlife's biological assessments, the first step in complying with federal law and the Endangered Species Act.

Gov. Jerry Brown presided over the high-speed rail line's official groundbreaking in Fresno last month despite a raft of legal challenges still plaguing the project, which voters approved in 2008.

Once finished - by 2029 - the $68 billion-plus project will whisk riders from Los Angeles to San Francisco in three hours, at speeds up to 220 mph.

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