California bullet train agency damaged habitat of endangered fox

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the rail board is working to correct the issue and no fines will be issued

Even before it begins significant construction on the bullet train route, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has violated federal protections for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox in the Central Valley, federal regulators said in a letter last week.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the authority had set up a nine-acre construction yard outside the approved footprint for the project, affecting habitat and resulting in the destruction of a kit fox den.

In a Jan. 26 letter, the service said the rail agency, along with the Federal Railroad Administration and its contractors, had failed to comply with the conditions of the bullet train's federal biological opinion on six distinct issues, including the failure to turn over biological survey reports that the wildlife agency had repeatedly requested in phone calls and emails.

But the effect of the violations may be limited. The wildlife service said that the rail authority and its partners had initiated a formal consultation on the project, which was the "appropriate" action, and that no fines were being considered. The rail authority also proposed offsetting the loss of nine acres of fox habitat by creating a new permanent habitat in the area, which wildlife service officials deemed adequate in an email exchange over the weekend.

The San Joaquin kit fox, which is about the size of a house cat with tan fur, is considered among the most endangered animals in the state. About 7,000 foxes are estimated to be alive, often surviving in urban areas by eatiig rats, birds, lizards and squirrels.

Sarah Swenty, a spokeswoman with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Sacramento field office, said such violations and letters of noncompliance were fairly routine, so long as regulated agencies or corporations are willing to cooperate. Swenty attributed the failure of the rail authority to provide required reports as simply a matter of being behind schedule and said the delays did not affect the survival of the kit fox species.

The original footprint of the project that the wildlife service approved was for the bullet train right-of-way, which did not include various temporary easements that would be needed during construction, said Lisa Marie Alley, a rail authority spokeswoman. Tutor Perini, the Sylmar-based construction firm building the first 29-mile section of the line, set up the construction yard last summer.

Project biologists lowered a camera into the fox den for four days and when they found no activity, collapsed it so no foxes would return to the construction area, Swenty said. Although the construction yard had not been authorized, the den destruction was a good practice, she said. When the authority realized it had violated the terms of the biological opinion, it notified the wildlife service in October.

Rail authority officials said last month that they expect to begin by April building the first permanent structure of the project, a bridge over the Fresno River.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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