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Watchdog fears Legacy would ruffle eagle family

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Occasionally, a low-flying helicopter or curious bird watcher will disturb Mike and Jackie eagles' nest.

Most times, though, nothing besides the soft hum of a tractor and distant sounds of the cities intrude into their lives.That could soon change if construction begins as planned on the proposed Legacy West Davis Highway. The 13-mile, four-lane highway will run within a mile of the nest, bringing heavy equipment and heavier traffic into the bald eagle family's lives.

Such a disturbance, said Tim Funk, executive director for Hawk Watch International, could drive the eagles from their nesting spot along the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

"We're concerned that the construction activity, especially during the mating season, will be ex-tremely detrimental," Funk said.

Because of that, Hawk Watch has formally stated its opposition to the proposed highway, a position the organization says won't change unless various government entities show a greater concern for the dozens of shore birds and raptors that annually visit the Great Salt Lake.

On Tuesday, the office of Gov. Mike Leavitt approved the formation of a group to study the highway's impact on various birds, especially bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

The group will gather together almost a dozen people, including representatives from the state Division of Wildlife Resources, Hawk Watch and the Utah Department of Transportation. Together, they will determine the impact and propose methods for preserving the raptors' habitat.

Receiving the greatest attention, Funk said, will be the bald eagle nest. One of only four known nesting pairs in the state, the two eagles have returned for the last three years to mate and conceivably could continue to procreate for the next 15 years in the same nest.

In an effort to garner attention for the eagles' plight, Hawk Watch and the Sierra Club have named the two eaglets after Utah's first couple - Mike and Jackie Leavitt. A public naming ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday on the west side of the State Capitol.

"We need to address the issue while the nesting is still active, so we can show the real-life drama of the nest," Funk said.

Efforts to save the eagle nest may not have a great effect on the eventual decision about the highway, however.

"It's a minor issue, only plaguing when we might be able to do construction," said Carlos Braceras, UDOT's project manager for the Legacy West Davis Highway. "This is not a show-stopper."

UDOT has agreed that during the mating season, construction activity could be limited or halted. Beyond that, however, the nest won't receive any special treatment or protection from UDOT or other government organizations.

Any other plans, such as mitigation of the nest or building an artificial nest for the birds, would like-ly fail.

"It's difficult to say if the eagles would use a nearby nest, even if they could find it," said Frank Howe, the non-game avian program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Additionally, Howe said that if the eagles discontinue use of their nest, future nesting activities in Utah may cease.

"It's hard to predict if they would find somewhere else near-by, along the Wasatch Front, or out of the state," he said. "They may even stop mating."