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Work Halted Over Gnatcatcher Habitat

April 22, 1993|From Associated Press

EL CAJON — Construction of a $5-million physical education facility at a college was halted after federal wildlife officials said the project endangered the habitat of California gnatcatchers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials walked onto the project site at Cuyamaca College on April 9 and advised construction officials to stop work, saying they were in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The California gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird, was placed on the threatened species list last month.

The project was stopped less than a month after construction started. Although the 20-acre site had already been cleared of nearly all foliage, including the gnatcatcher's coastal sage scrub habitat and possibly three nesting pairs of birds, Fish and Wildlife officials said workers should no longer go onto the job site.

"It is unfortunate, because the message we're receiving is this is costing (the college) millions," said Ann Kreager, wildlife biologist for Fish and Wildlife. "It's not our fault. They should have been in compliance with federal law all along."

College officials said the bird's habitat--coastal scrub--was identified on the site for a 1975 environmental report, but the district was not aware of gnatcatchers occupying the site, said Dana Quittner, special assistant to the chancellor.

On March 25, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt placed the California gnatcatcher on the threatened species list and outlined a plan to protect the bird from extinction while allowing limited development on its habitat.

Under a state-led conservation effort, developers, environmentalists and others are negotiating to set aside large tracts of coastal sagebrush habitat for preserves to protect a variety of plants and animals, including the gnatcatcher.

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