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Release of Beetles May Harm Bird, Activists Say

LAS VEGAS (CN) - Uncle Sam failed to ensure that the release of beetles in Utah to control vegetation would not harm an endangered bird, conservationists claim.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society and Robin Silver, who co-founded the center and serves as vice president of the society, filed the lawsuit Monday in Federal Court. U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack is named as a defendant along with Gregory Parham, the administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and three other officials.

The suit involves a small bird called a flycatcher that was listed as endangered in 1995. Flycatchers live in areas of Nevada, California, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, primarily along major southwestern rivers where they are known to dwell inside a certain kind of small bush called saltcedar.

In the late 1990s, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) allegedly released the tamarisk-defoliating leaf beetle to control the spread of saltcedar in areas of Nevada, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and California.

APHIS had acknowledged that "it is 'possible' that 'in the short run saltcedar may be killed but native vegetation will not reestablish rapidly leaving area temporarily with no vegetation," according to the complaint.

It nevertheless allegedly decided that the release program would not affect the flycatcher because the bird "is not known to nest in saltcedar in the areas in the proposed program."

APHIS had also said it would step in to help control the program if that premise proved faulty, according to the complaint.

The environmentalist plaintiffs say the program started to go downhill in 2006 when APHIS released the beetle into areas of Utah. In 2008 the service learned that beetles were found in the flycatcher habitat in Arizona, according to the complaint. The agencies allegedly attributed this occurrence to beetles from the release in Utah.

Silver's conservation group allegedly then notified APHIS that it would have to take action and renew consultations with environmental agencies about the program's problems.

APHIS told the organization it had terminated the saltcedar program and stopped issuing new beetle-release permits to help with the growing beetle problem and that "formal consultation regarding the ongoing adverse effects of its permitting activities and Saltcedar Bioncontrol Program on the SWWF was not required," according to the complaint, abbreviating southwestern willow flycatcher.

Silver said his group nevertheless sent APHIS a letter that laid out measures on how to reverse the effects of the beetle program, only to receive "a cursory response stating that the service 'appreciate[s] your concerns' and that 'implementation of effective solutions will be complex and require extensive collaboration.'"

"APHIS and the other federal agencies responsible for release of the beetle have not only contributed directly to the impairment and degradation of the flycatcher's dwindling critical habitat, but they are compound this problem by also failing to adopt any meaningful, timely measures to mitigate the adverse effects of their actions," the complaint states.

The plaintiffs are suing for violations of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

They are represented by William Eubanks II of Meyer Glizentstein & Crystal n Washington, D.C.

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