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Elusive Squirrel Stymies Plans : Study Seeks to Find If Rodent Lives at School Site

Times Staff Writer

The Mojave ground squirrel--an elusive, reclusive rodent that spends more than half the year sleeping underground--is causing problems for the Wilsona School District.

The small rural district wants to buy 10 acres of a 40-acre parcel in the eastern Antelope Valley to construct an elementary school at 150th Street East and Avenue N-12. But the land sale and school construction have been delayed by a Los Angeles County-mandated biological study of the site, which is part of an ecologically protected area that is home to the ground squirrel and other rare desert wildlife.

Although the recently completed study found no positive evidence for the presence of the Mojave ground squirrel, environmental researchers did find one possible burrow indicating possible habitation.

As a result, the county’s Significant Ecological Areas Technical Advisory Committee next week may recommend further environmental study before a parcel split is approved. And because the squirrel will soon retire for its annual underground hiatus until March, school officials fear that it could take them until the spring to demonstrate that they would not harm any squirrels, even if only by proving that there are none there to harm.

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4 10-Acre Lots

Construction of the school requires sale of the property to the district, which in turn hinges on approval of the proposed split of the 40 acres into four 10-acre lots. The lot split cannot be considered for approval by the county Regional Planning Commission until it is approved by the Significant Ecological Areas Technical Advisory Committee and planning staff.

And all that hinges on the squirrel.

“We had hoped things would move along a lot smoother,” said Ron Gardineer, an architect commissioned by the school district. “In terms of optimal programming, this has pushed us back about 10 months’ time. We’re in a waiting game as to whether the squirrel shows up.”

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The school district originally planned to begin construction on Saddleback Elementary School this fall and open the school for 500 students in 1991. The school is needed because the 1,500-student district is outgrowing its aging facilities.

In February, county environmental officials told owners John and Alicia Pashayan to commission a study of wildlife on their property because of its designation as part of a “Significant Ecological Area.” Development can take place in such an area, but it must be carefully reviewed for compatibility with the environment.

‘Protect Biotic Resources’

“The areas were created to protect biotic resources,” said Frank Meneses of the Regional Planning Department. “The Mojave ground squirrel is part of an overall significant ecosystem, along with Joshua trees and other plant life.”

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The cinnamon-gray Mojave ground squirrel inhabits a large area of the western Mojave desert encompassing parts of Los Angeles, Kern and San Bernardino counties. It feeds on fruits, seeds and desert plants.

It is on the state list of threatened species. But state and private environmental officials said they do not know the present size of the squirrel population.

The squirrel’s resemblance to the more common antelope squirrel and its rare aboveground appearances, which are limited to the spring breeding period, make it notoriously hard to spot, said Earl Lauppe of the state Fish and Game Department.

“You have to have someone out there who knows what they’re looking for,” Lauppe said. “Only a few biologists have that kind of understanding. If you just find a hole, it might be the hole of another type of squirrel.”

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Hole Found

A hole is all that researchers from Michael Brandman Associates came up with after completing their study last month, according to Jake Maevers, who is planning the proposed lot-split for the owners.

In the interim, the school district temporarily lost $4 million in state construction funds because the money has already been allocated. In an effort to get back on the funding schedule, school officials last week commissioned another environmental research firm to conduct a separate study, school board member Maurice Kunkle said.

“We haven’t lost the money; we’ve just lost it for right now,” he said. “They told us they would approve the rest of the planning if we take care of this thing.”

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School officials and the owners of the property said they understand the importance of protecting the environment. Still, they expressed exasperation because they are yet to be convinced that the squirrel is more than a phantom rodent.

The district could end up looking for a new site if approval of the parcel split and land sale are substantially delayed.

And if the squirrel is discovered, development could still proceed with measures designed to protect the animals, preserving areas where they could live undisturbed.

“If it isn’t there, the parcel split can proceed accordingly,” Gardineer said. “If it is there, that poses a whole new set of questions.”

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