Spare the plow, save the squirrel

  The arid grasslands and shrub steppe prairie of the Columbia Plateau have gradually dwindled as farmers have plowed up thousands of acres to plant lucrative crops such as potatoes and onions. The Washington ground squirrel is among the species linked to this dwindling habitat, and over the past decade the squirrels' population has dropped by 69 percent. To halt the declines, environmentalists are now battling a private company's plan to plow up 25,000 acres of state land.

In Oregon, much of the squirrels' remaining habitat lies within 93,800 acres of state-owned land that was leased for $2 per acre to Boeing Co. in 1963. The site was intended for a high-tech aerospace center; when that plan fell through, Boeing subleased the land to Inland Land Co., an agricultural corporation. To date, more than 30,000 acres of the state land have been developed, and Inland Land Co. has a state-approved plan to plow and irrigate another 25,000 acres. This comes despite the squirrels' "sensitive" listing under the Oregon Endangered Species Act.

"This destruction of Palouse grassland and shrub steppe is totally dysfunctional ecologically," says David Dobkin of Oregon's High Desert Ecological Research Institute. He says he's frustrated because the habitat in question is already publicly owned and could be protected. Yet the state has agreed to develop the land while it claims to be searching for salmon solutions, he says.

Environmentalists' recent attempt to win an emergency endangered squirrel listing from the state has failed. A coalition of environmentalists is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its decision to allow Inland Land to pump water from the Columbia River, because the pumping jeopardizes endangered salmon and steelhead runs. Under the company's irrigation plan, it would use as much Columbia River water as the 800,000 people of Portland do each year.

" Dan Nailen
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