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Greens Fight for Upper Rio Grande

ALBUQUERQUE (CN) - Army Corps of Engineers levee-building is threatening endangered birds and fish in one of the last wild stretches near the headlands of the Rio Grande in the mountains of New Mexico, WildEarth Guardians claims in court.

Though best known as a sluggish, contaminated stream on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Rio Grande is born as a wild river, 1,900 miles from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, in New Mexico's San Juan Mountains. During seasonal runoff of the snowpack, the river overflows its banks and deposits sediments that support a wide rang of wildlife, including the Southwestern willow flycatcher, yellow-billed cuckoo and the Rio Grande silvery minnow - all endangered species. Sandhill cranes and many butterfly species also live on the floodplain.

WildEarth Guardians claims that Army Corps of Engineers dams and levees on the upper Rio Grande have substantially damaged wetlands throughout the state. In its Feb. 24 lawsuit, the environmental group says the San Acacia Reach, one of the few stretches of the river that is still relatively wild and could be completely restored with significant care, will be damaged if the Corps of Engineers is not reined in.

The Army Corps of Engineers wants to replace small earthen levees along 43 miles of the river with larger permanent structures. WildEarth Guardians says this would ruin any chance of restoring the wilderness and will hurt protected wildlife. The group also says the Corps of Engineers and its co-defendant the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately investigate nonstructural methods of flood control.

The San Acacia Ranch was designated as critical habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Rio Grande silvery minnow in the 1990s, under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish and Wildlife violated the Endangered Species Act by not acknowledging the protections in its official biological opinion and allowing the project to go forward, the group says.

WildEarth Guardians seeks declaratory judgment and wants the government restrained from building the levees until it complies with environmental laws and the Administrative Procedure Act.

WildEarth is represented by house counsel Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, of Santa Fe.

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