A federal judge last week temporarily halted construction on a $320 million irrigation project by the Army Corps of Engineers in a region of Arkansas where birders recently reported sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker long thought to be extinct. Responding to a lawsuit filed by concerned environmental groups, U.S. District Judge William Wilson ruled that credible accounts of the bird’s presence in Arkansas’ Big Woods Preserve in 2004 called into question the environmental impact assessments used to greenlight the irrigation project.
Meanwhile, farmers in the region are incensed, complaining that two inconclusive sightings of the bird a couple of years ago shouldn’t be enough to jeopardize a project they say is key to the production of soybean, cotton and rice in eastern Arkansas. Army Corp of Engineers representatives claim that the main aquifer used for farming in the region will be depleted by 2015 without taking action.
The locus of the now-halted irrigation project lies about 14 miles from where birdwatchers report seeing the ivory-billed woodpecker. More than 100 trained volunteers combed through the area in question last winter in hopes of finding conclusive evidence of the bird’s existence—to no avail. Scientists continue to debate the status of the woodpecker, and argue over interpretation of the videotape thought to have captured the bird.
But Judge Wilson sides with environmentalists who claim that the irrigation project violates the Endangered Species Act itself given the chance that the now-famous woodpecker might still survive. “When an endangered species is allegedly jeopardized, the balance of hardships and public interest tips in favor of the protected species. Here there is evidence,” Wilson writes in support of his recent decision.