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State: Owl species likely to delay LI development

The appearance of an endangered owl at Enterprise Park in Calverton has drawn the state's attention and likely will complicate development of the site, where a water park and indoor ski mountain are proposed.

News that short-eared owls were spotted hunting in the grass near the old Grumman runways came as a surprise to Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale. On Wednesday, he called the timing of the discovery "suspicious."

Seen only occasionally on Long Island, short-eared owls are listed as endangered in New York State and are entitled to the same protections afforded to such species as the eastern tiger salamander. The amphibians' breeding ponds have already been reported at Enterprise Park and constrained a 1996 expansion of the Tanger outlet mall in Riverhead.

Development where the owls were found "will likely require an environmental review by DEC and potential permit jurisdiction under the State Environmental Conservation Law's endangered and threatened species protections," state Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren said by e-mail Wednesday.

Riverhead's efforts to develop the 2,900-acre Calverton site have led to repeated clashes with environmental groups and state officials, who say more caution is needed to protect vulnerable species and the underground aquifers beneath the property. Last week the town sued the DEC over Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis' decision to grant his own agency lead status for an environmental review of the water park being built there.

The DEC documented the owls' presence -- along with that of the threatened northern harrier -- at Enterprise Park earlier this week, after several reports from birders last month that groups of three and four owls were foraging near the runways. It is the largest group of short-eared owls to show up on Long Island in several years, said Trish Pelkowski, Pine Barrens site director for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island, who photographed the owls there last week.

Richard Amper, of the Pine Barrens Society, said the site can still be developed. Still, he said, if Riverhead "looked at the property instead of the projects, they might have discovered endangered species [such as the owl] and known better what would or would not be acceptable."

Short-eared owls typically breed in the far north of Canada and venture south during the winter to forage on voles and other small mammals in less snowy surroundings, said Peter Nye, leader of the DEC's endangered species unit in Albany. Much of the open grassland habitat that once sustained them across New York State has been lost to development or reverted to forest.

The goal, Nye said, is to "talk about conservation before the bulldozers get started. ... There have, of course, been challenges with getting this to happen in Riverhead."

Cardinale said the 1997 environmental impact statement the federal government completed before handing the property over to Riverhead included the eastern tiger salamander but made no mention of the short-eared owl.

"I haven't seen any pictures of it and I don't know whether it's flying over, visiting or perching," he said, adding that he was waiting for the DEC to show him proof. Noting that each of the proposed projects at Enterprise Park would leave a large section of land undeveloped, Cardinale said, "I hope the owl is on that side of the property, if there is one at all."

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