November 28, 2008

Developer to pay $753 per acre for tortoise mitigation

Pahrump Valley Times

Corrections Corporation of America will pay a fee of $753 per acre for disturbing desert tortoise habitat, in a biological opinion for the federal detention center approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That would amount to $51,957 for 69 acres of disturbed habitat in an agreement approved Oct. 9. The check will be paid to the Clark County Desert Tortoise Conservation Program for habitat enhancement and acquisition for desert tortoises in the wild.

The agreement was released after the filing of a Freedom of Information Act request by the Pahrump Valley Times.

A tortoise-proof fence will be required around the perimeter of the project, including the detention center water storage tank and drainage ditch. Another 51 acres of the 120-acre property will not be disturbed, the opinion said.

The issuance kicks off an 18-month period in which CCA is expected to construct and have ready for occupancy a federal detention center to house up to 1,500 inmates awaiting trial in federal court or deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The fee is much higher than the $550 per acre for a high-habitat zone and $250 in a low-habitat zone proposed in a habitat conservation plan covering up to 150 acres in Pahrump Valley -- a plan that was rejected by Nye County commissioners.

After months of haggling with the Fish and Wildlife Service, county officials balked at paying a fee suggested by consultant Julene Haworth to submit the plan after being told the plan would be free.

"I think there is definitely still a need because there are still species affected on private land," said Amy LaVoie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife deputy assistant field supervisor. "The urgency may have dropped a little bit because of the economy. I know there were a lot of planned developments in the Pahrump area."

County Commissioner Gary Hollis said he was belatedly engaging in discussions on desert tortoise mitigation plans so state USFWS Director Bob Williams "didn't send his storm troopers" down to Pahrump.

County Commission Chairman Joni Eastley had concerns the agency could stop construction in Pahrump if contractors didn't have the necessary agreement for an accidental take of desert tortoise.

"We have not decided whether to enact any enforcement at this time, especially with some of the developers coming forth and wanting to do their own plan," LaVoie said.

Pahrump is awaiting a desert tortoise habitat conservation plan for the 426-acre site on Highway 160 just southeast of Dandelion Road formerly planned for a fairgrounds and now being considered for a water park and western theme village.

In March 2007, the USFWS said the desert tortoise was a species that may be present at the proposed federal detention center site at 2250 E. Mesquite Ave. in Pahrump. A site visit on Nov.12-13, 2007, found 13 desert tortoise burrows but no actual tortoises. The service estimated the site would have very low densities ranging from zero to 10 tortoises per square mile.

"Human activity in the area may result in tortoise mortality from vehicle encounters, increased predation from ravens, illegal collection of tortoises and degradation of the habitat from disturbance, fragmentation and the spread of non-native plants," the opinion said.

However, the USFWS concluded that based on mitigation measures, already increased levels of disturbance in the area and the small area of disturbance proposed for the center, "The project, as proposed and analyzed, is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the threatened desert tortoise."

A qualified biologist will be required to direct the placement of temporary fencing along East Mesquite Avenue during construction, in areas next to desert tortoise habitat, a recommendation made by the Fish and Wildlife Service to the consultant for the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee.

That was the result of a site visit and past observations of tortoises crossing the road, Williams wrote.

A field contract representative approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service would be hired to implement an education program for construction workers; conduct a pre-construction clearance survey flagging any burrows, feeding sites or nesting sites; define disturbance areas and install desert tortoise exclusion fencing before construction.

A biologist will be on call during construction to move any desert tortoises out of the project area.

If the installation of the tortoise proof fence occurs during their active period from March to October, an authorized biologist will be present to ensure no tortoises are harmed. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates two tortoises could be killed during construction. The fencing would be monitored daily.