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O.C. Time-Share Plan Involves Animal-Killing to Save Birds : Habitat: Foxes, cowbirds, would be eradicated to provide gnatcatcher sanctuary, a condition for Disney resort.

February 22, 1995|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — To help save the threatened gnatcatcher, an environmental review of Walt Disney Co.'s planned time-share village released Tuesday proposes to kill red foxes and certain birds near the sensitive Newport Coast site.

Predatory cowbirds would be trapped and killed, red foxes shot and their hutches destroyed, and 14.7 acres of prime gnatcatcher habitat would be created as a condition to building Disney's lavish Newport Coast Resort.

The draft environmental blueprint is especially important for the future of the 650-unit time-share condominium project because it is being proposed in the heart of one of Orange County's most valuable, undeveloped stretches--the ocean-view hills south of Newport Beach. The resort is scheduled to open possibly as soon as 1997.

Disney officials had no immediate comment on the environmental report, instead saying it planned to hold a press conference today to discuss the document.

The report, prepared by Orange County's Environmental Management Agency, states that an average of 7,500 car trips would be made to the project every weekday once it opens, but that it would not cause traffic congestion.

The greatest impact from the project, according to the report, would come from grading the 76-acre site to create a village of Italian-style villas and canals intertwined with restaurants, shopping and meeting areas. The agency will take public comments on the preliminary document for the next 45 days comment before completing the final version.

So far, the Newport Beach time-share project has not met significant resistance from environmentalists. Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, said that the Disney project is relatively small, and hence has far less destructive potential compared to larger developments, such as the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

The project is set, however, in an area best known recently as the home of the gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird whose threatened status has led to calls to stop major developments to preserve the species.

In Disney's case, the county adopted a recommendation by the California Department of Fish and Game that calls for killing an estimated two or three foxes and an unknown number of cowbirds that threaten the gnatcatcher, as well as creating new habitat to make up for the acreage lost to the project.

Cowbirds destroy a gnatcatcher's eggs and lay their own eggs in the same nest. The cowbirds are to be trapped and euthanized under the proposal.

Red foxes would be killed as well because they don't adapt well to being relocated, leaving few other options, said state wildlife biologist Cheryl Heffly-Burd.

"They are cute animals to look at, but they cause severe problems for our ground-nesting bird population in coastal Orange County," Heffly-Burd said. "Last year at the Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve, they nearly wiped out the entire least tern nesting population in a week and half."

The state spent about $25,000 trapping a family of red foxes that lived next to the Costa Mesa Freeway in 1991 after they became a media sensation. They now live in the Santa Ana Zoo.

In 1986, a group called the Animal Lovers Volunteer Assn. filed a federal lawsuit to stop the killing of red foxes to preserve nesting birds around in the Seal Beach wetlands. A judge ruled against the group six years later, saying that fox-killing could proceed because endangered species take precedence.

To help the gnatcatchers, more than 14 acres of habitat would be created on the Disney project site and at the nearby Pelican Hill golf course. Heffly-Burd said that, since much of the Disney site has such poor habitat for gnatcatchers at present, the proposed changes would be an improvement.

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