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When bird lovers in Los Angeles arrived for an annual bird count earlier this winter, they encountered a harsh surprise: More than 40 acres of wildlife habitat have been stripped down to the soil. It is land managed by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers but used as a nature preserve. The Corps says the work was necessary to deal with flood risks. But now, as Gloria Hillard reports, there are questions about whether the Corps violated rules that protect wetlands and waterfowl.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: A stone's throw from two of Los Angeles' busiest freeways, the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve is unique among wild urban places.
KRIS OHLENKAMP: Here, you've got cottonwood trees that are 30 feet tall, a lot of coyote brush and mule fat, and even here, it's 50 percent covered with native plants. On the other side, it was significantly more than that.
HILLARD: Kris Ohlenkamp and Dave Weeshoff of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society are giving me a tour of the northern portion of the reserve. To get to the southern part, we walk through a cement wildlife corridor. Traffic hums above us, and the tunnel opens onto a different scene.
OHLENKAMP: These 48 acres was the original wildlife area, and now, it's all gone.
HILLARD: For as far as the eye can see, flattened trees, branches and bushes are scattered like a game of pickup sticks. Raised tire treads from heavy machinery lattice the ground in all directions. Dave Weeshoff says this area, decades in the making, provided food, shelter and breeding habitat for wildlife and more than 200 species of birds.
DAVE WEESHOFF: Phase one, cut it down to ground zero, and for two years, apply herbicides to keep anything from growing. So this is going to get bad and then even worse.
TOMAS BEAUCHAMP: Part of that plan is to create a habitat that is conducive to flood control operations as well as to environmental stewardship and native restoration.
HILLARD: Tomas Beauchamp is with the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, which manages this portion of the Los Angeles River flood plain. He says the clearing was necessary to improve flood control operations and public safety. Under its vegetation management plan, he says the Corps will replace what was removed with native grasses to discourage homeless camps, drug dealing and lewd activity.
BEAUCHAMP: So there's been multiple things that we've been approached with law enforcement, issues in the area.
STATE SENATOR FRAN PAVLEY: This was like a hurricane went through there.
HILLARD: State Senator Fran Pavley's district includes the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve. She's asking the Corps to explain its finding that no wildlife or habitat would be significantly disturbed.
PAVLEY: It looked like extensive unneeded devastation of acres and acres of land, and you had to ask yourself not only why but also the fact that the public felt that they had no knowledge.
HILLARD: The Corps says it posted the notice of the project on its website but received no comments. Now under pressure from politicians, other government agencies and environmentalists, it has temporarily halted the work. Brad Sherman, who represents the area in Congress, says moving forward requires balancing the interests of public safety and the environment.
REPRESENTATIVE BRAD SHERMAN: First is flood control, but beyond that, anything that can be done both to provide habitat for wildlife and viewing opportunities for valley residents is important.
HILLARD: Continuing the tour with Audubon's Kris Ohlenkamp and Dave Weeshoff, we come to an area where this time of year, the California thrasher would be in full song, setting up its territory to attract a mate. In the thrasher's absence, Weeshoff pulls out his phone and clicks on an app that plays the bird's call.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)
WEESHOFF: Now blend that in with a dozen other species all with different calls.
OHLENKAMP: The great horned owls are breeding now, and the hawks are coupling up and pairing up. And the thrashers are paired up, and everybody is just starting to sing.
HILLARD: In what was once a small woodland, a single four-foot great blue heron has found refuge in a small area yet untouched, a patch of green in the shadow of a busy freeway. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.