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FISH WON'T SINK RUNWAY PLAN, BIOLOGIST SAYS

A local environmentalist believes burying wetlands to extend the Provo Municipal Airport runway will destroy wildlife habitat, particularly that of a nearly extinct fish found only in Utah Lake.

But a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist said that while the shallow water lapping against the airport dike provides important habitat, it is not essential to the June sucker's existence. Only the lower Provo River is considered critical habitat.Provo resident Lillian Hayes, membership chairwoman of the Mount Timpanogos Audubon Society, is looking for any possible angle to derail the $5 million runway extension plan. "It's a terrible project," she said. The endangered fish, however, probably isn't the ticket.

"The June sucker is not the hammer that is going to shut this project down. The Endangered Species Act doesn't work that way. If they were going to fill in the Provo River, we'd tell them no," said Henry Maddux, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who heads the June sucker recovery team.

Maddux said there's no information showing the fish needs the stretch of water along the dike to survive. The area is intermittently saturated.

"Nursery ponds are a lot more critical right now than saving a piece of land," he said.

As part of the airstrip project, Provo City is required to spend $50,000 for June sucker holding ponds. Those ponds are to be built at the state Division of Wildlife Resources Springville fish hatchery and near Utah State University where a researcher raises the steel-gray, white-bellied fish in a lab.

Recovery team members say few of the aging suckers make their annual June spawning run to the Provo River. No young fish make it to the lake alive, falling prey to white bass. Fishery biologists also now believe June suckers might have spawned in the Spanish Fork River at the lake's south end. Maddux estimates the total number of fish in the lake at 250.

"They're in trouble," he said.

About 1,000 5-year-old, lab-raised fish were released into the lake last year. Another 3,000 are scheduled to be introduced this year. It will take at least five years before they make a spawning run.

Hayes insists that this year's high water requires the Federal Aviation Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service to have a consultation before dump trucks can start hauling fill. Maddux and Provo airport manager Jim Mathis said they haven't heard of such a requirement.

"We'll re-examine the conditions of the permit and make sure they're living up to it," Maddux said.

Mathis and federal, local and state agencies have formally approved the entire runway extension project, including a wetlands mitigation plan, and that further discussions would be redundant.

"We've bent over backwards since we started this project to accommodate all the environmental concerns," he said.

The FAA and Provo City plan to lengthen the airport's primary runway 1,509 feet to the northwest. Safety zones measuring 1,000 feet by 500 feet will be added to both ends of the strip. Mathis said the extension will go north because environmentalists vehemently opposed moving south into Provo Bay. That decision tacked an additional $3 million onto the project, he said.

Site work on the project has yet to begin.

Officials have held off on trucking in fill, which cannot be Geneva slag or toxic material, until the lake recedes.