U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they don’t think Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline will have an impact on any endangered species, and expect to conclude their review of a key environmental study within the next three weeks.
“We are not overly concerned about the effect of this pipeline on either the Chiricahua Leopard Frog or the Mexican Spotted Owl, but we have to go through the process,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Field Supervisor Steve Sprangle.
Jeff Humphreys, spokesman for the USFWS regional office, said his office has received the final draft of the Forest Service’s biological assessment of the pipeline and would “hit the ground running” thanks to the exchange of earlier drafts.
“Our biologist is committed to working through this week to fill any data gaps and we’re hopeful we’ll complete the process in the next three weeks,” said Humphreys.
The comments from top USFWS officials bode well for the endangered timetable for both the Blue Ridge pipeline and a college campus in Payson. Project backers face looming deadlines that could add millions to the cost of both projects and perhaps endanger financing commitments.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said demanding timetables for the college depend on knowing when the Blue Ridge water will arrive. He said the project could salvage the current timetable if the USFWS can in fact act within a month.
Payson’s consultants said last October the plan to bury a 36-inch-wide, 15-mile-long pipeline alongside Houston Mesa Road would have no serious impact on wildlife. After answering a series of questions, the consultants formally submitted the report to the Forest Service in January. However, 8-10 rounds of edits requested by Forest Service biologists have stalled the project for the past nine months — although neither the owl nor the frog actually live in or along the creek.
The Tonto National Forest finally concluded the pipeline would have no significant negative impacts on wildlife, including the frog and the owl — both on the federal endangered species list.
Sprangle said he also anticipated the pipeline would have no lasting impact on either the frog or the owl. The law requires the Forest Service to at least informally consult with the USFWS any time a project might impact an endangered species. If the USFWS concludes the project might have an impact, it can ask for a formal environmental impact statement — which would delay the project for a year or more.
The Forest Service’s biological assessment also considered the possible impact on the Headwater Chub, a dwindling native fish that occurs in the East Verde River. However, it’s a “candidate” for the endangered species list and therefore not included in the USFWS review of the project, said Sprangle.
As it turns out, although neither the Chiricahua Leopard Frog nor the Mexican Spotted Owl live in or along the East Verde River, they both live close enough that they could possibly find their way to the stream.
However, the potential impact of the pipeline on either species appears fleeting and slight, said Sprangle.
The nearest critical habitat for the Mexican Spotted Owl lies more than a mile from the East Verde River.
The USFWS has identified about 684 “owl sites” in the mountains of central Arizona, which includes all of Rim Country.
That represents about 63 percent of the known Mexican Spotted Owl territories in the country.
In Rim Country, spotted owls live in relatively dense forests with closely spaced trees that have a multi-layered canopy. Most of the owls locally live in the many steep, inaccessible, thickly forested canyons along the face of the Mogollon Rim.
Sprangle said the patch of dense forest near the East Verde designated as a good place for spotted owls doesn’t presently include any nesting pairs. Although spotted owls do often nest in dense riparian areas like the stretches of forest bordering the East Verde, none have been recorded along the stream.
He said even if owls did make use of the designated nearby territory, he did not think even the sound of blasting during the months of pipeline construction would bother the owls.
“I believe the loud, noise-producing activities are not going to occur during the breeding season and we’re unaware of any owls near the pipeline. So we’re really not concerned about the effect on spotted owls of this pipeline,” he said.
Sprangle also said the pipeline seemed unlikely to affect the Chiricahua Leopard Frog, a once widespread amphibian driven to the brink of extinction mostly as a result of drastic changes in streams and wetlands — including the introduction of voracious predators like trout, bass, catfish, crayfish and bullfrogs.
A population of Chiricahua Leopard Frogs lives in Page Springs, about a mile away from the East Verde.
The croaking critters can hop overland for up to a mile to find a new home. They can also spread for about three miles down along an intermittent stream and about five miles down a permanent stream.
However, the USFWS did not designate the East Verde River as critical habitat for the frog, since it’s so full of crayfish and predatory non-native fish that the frog would have little chance of breeding in the stream.
However, noted Humphreys, individual frogs could hop from Page Springs to the East Verde then make their way along the river to perhaps find other, small breeding areas along the way.
Still, that shouldn’t pose a problem for the pipeline, said Sprangle. Construction activity might temporary block the wanderings of an individual adult frog, but once the pipeline’s safely buried, it shouldn’t bother the stray, wandering frog.
“If a frog happened to head in that direction from Page Springs and it got in the way of machinery or trenching or ditches — that might preclude the frog from reaching the East Verde,” said Sprangle.
“But once the pipeline is built and a frog elected to seek out the East Verde, we don’t think the presence of the pipeline would have an effect.”
As a result, Sprangle said the pipeline was “not a great concern” when it came to the frog.
“We can’t base a determination on speculation that a frog might wander that way. We need to acknowledge that there’s a possibility that a pathway might be compromised from some period of time. But we wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s some reasonable certainty frogs would be harmed by construction activity, because we don’t know of any frogs in the construction footprint.”