The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its final environmental impact statement for the Nebraska Public Power District's R-Project transmission line, related to the endangered American burying beetle habitat that lies within the project's path.

With the release, the agency opens a 30-day public inspection period before making a final decision on whether to issue an incidental take permit for NPPD on the beetle.

The R-Project has been controversial in the Sandhills area of the state where it is proposed because of the fear by some ranchers and other residents there that their land and livelihoods are at risk. They are concerned about the turbines and power lines projected to be placed on the grass prairie and sand dunes that cover about a quarter of the state.

The 345-kilovolt transmission line would cut 225 miles through north-central Nebraska and the Sandhills. Some opponents believe the public power district could have taken a less controversial route, but detoured into the Sandhills instead to meet potential feeder lines.

During a media call on the release of the impact statement, Noreen Walsh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region, also commented on the interest some have in whether NPPD should have requested an incidental take permit on the endangered whooping cranes that migrate through Nebraska and the Sandhills.

Walsh said the region's role in NPPD's R-Project is narrow, limited to evaluation of NPPD's request for an incidental take permit for the beetle.

The public power district determined, and the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed, that construction of the transmission line would likely result in death or injury to the beetle, which would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act unless a permit is obtained.

NPPD has submitted a habitat conservation plan to minimize harm to the beetle and committed to acquiring a parcel of the beetle habitat to protect in perpetuity, anticipating the impact to the species, Walsh said.

The regional Fish and Wildlife Service will review the plan to determine if it meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act for a permit, she said.

The permit would authorize taking of the beetles within 1 mile on each side of the R-Project center line from Stapleton north to the Thedford substation and 4 miles on each side of the center of a line from the Thedford substation east to a new Holt County substation, the Fish and Wildlife Service document said.

Construction of the project would permanently remove 33 acres and temporarily disturb 1,250 acres of the beetle habitat over the 50-year term of the permit. NPPD would commit to protect at least 500 acres of occupied beetle habitat in Nebraska.

Walsh said Fish and Wildlife does not have a role in permitting the transmission line itself.

There's been considerable interest, she said, in whether NPPD should have applied for a permit that would cover potential deaths or injuries to whooping cranes, which fly through the project area on their spring and fall migrations to and from Wood Buffalo Park in Canada, and their wintering sites at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Fish and Wildlife reviewed the NPPD analysis of the likelihood of whooping cranes striking the power lines, and conducted its own analysis. It also looked at data from the U.S. Geological Survey, obtained from satellite transmitters on 58 whooping cranes.

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