San Juan County officials believe that when - not if - California condors drift into southern Utah, they will carry a lot of bureaucratic and environmental baggage.
"It's not the bird we're against; it's the weight of the regulation it brings with it," said San Juan County Commissioner Bill Redd. "No one can complain about an animal existing as nature intended."But fearing federal meddling in the competitive natural process, the county asked a federal judge on Monday to block the planned release of six California condors in the Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona.
"We want them (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to do the process they require of everyone else," Redd said following the hearing in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
Not that he thinks it will make much difference. Looking back at the outcomes of past battles with federal agencies, Redd said, "In the long run, I think we'll get it no matter what."
This latest battle involves efforts to save the endangered California condor by reintroducing the bird to its natural habitats. Fish and Wildlife biologists had hoped to release six of 17 newborn condors into the Vermillion Cliffs in July but were stopped by the lawsuit.
The agency's lawyer, Lisa Holden, asked Judge Tena Campbell to dismiss the lawsuit, saying there was no evidence the condors would move into San Juan County anytime soon. Moreover, the birds would be electronically and visually monitored and would be removed from problem areas, she said.
Also, Robert Mesta, condor program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a written statement submitted to the court that further delays could put the entire program at risk. As the birds age, he said, their chances of survival in a new environment diminish.
Campbell asked the lawyers to submit further information and said she would rule on the competing motions next week. If she denies the county's motion for an injunction, the birds could be released later this month.
Federal officials have attempted to address San Juan County's concerns with assurances that for purposes of the program, the condor would be classified as "experimental" rather than "endangered." That means the bird's activities would not be allowed to interfere with other land and recreational uses, including logging and ranching.
But Redd doubts the guarantee would be honored once the condor begins flying the skies of southern Utah.
"They're saying its color will change whenever it flies out of a national park. It will go from being an endangered threatened species to an experimental nonessential species," Redd said.
"But you can be sure the minute it's out, the environmentalists will sue to stop of us from doing anything that gets in its way. They admitted in court that they can't control what the Department of Interior ultimately decides to do."
As the "the most endangered and threatened species in America," the condor will do to southern Utah what the spotted owl did to the Northwest and the kangaroo rat did to California, Redd predicted.
"Every time we try do a road or any other kind of a project, it will either stop it or increase the cost," he said.
For example, he said the county recently bought some federal land for a solid waste facility. "By the time we were through paying people to camp out and watch for ferrets and look for burrowing owls and do the archaeological studies, the cost of the ground went up 10 times."
With 9 1/2-foot wingspans, the slow-moving scavengers also pose highway and air safety risks, Redd said. With so much "road kill" in the rural county, the birds are likely to spend a lot of time on the highways, he noted.
However, government witnesses responded that the risk of a condor colliding with an airplane is extremely small. And the fish and wildlife agency also promised to help remove dead animals from roadways to minimize the chance of collision with motorists.
Other issues aside, the county's main legal argument is that the government simply hasn't complied with its own laws, Redd said. "The kicker is, they haven't followed the NEPA process, haven't done the public scoping, haven't coordinated with local officials."