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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A U.S.-based environmental group claims building new helicopter landing pads in the Marines’ Jungle Warfare Training Center would threaten Okinawa’s rare Noguchi woodpeckers there.

In a move that could threaten plans to return 9,852 acres of the JWTC to Okinawa, the Center for Biological Diversity has announced it plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect the woodpeckers.

But a Marine Corps environmentalist said the woodpecker is thriving on the bases and actions are being taken to protect it. Mitsugu Sugiyama, an entomologist with the Marines’ Facilities Engineer Division, said the Marine Corps paid for a $30,000 survey last year. “We found that the Noguchi is generally distributed pretty evenly throughout the JWTC,” he said. “It’s an excellent area for them.

“Surveys by us and the prefecture have shown that they are also thriving outside the JWTC area … mostly north of Nago.”

Still, the Arizona-based environmental group contends “a significant amount of prime remaining woodpecker habitat is threatened by a U.S. military proposal to construct new roads, helicopter landing pads and associated infrastructure.”

The birds should be protected under the act, the group claims, because they exist on a U.S. base.

The group says the department violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect “scores of the world’s most imperiled bird species,” including the Noguchi woodpecker.

The environmentalists and Japanese government also differ on how many woodpeckers remain. The environmentalists estimate 100 to 500 birds remain “in undisturbed subtropical forests in the northern mountainous region of the island of Okinawa, Japan,” the group stated in a news release. But a recent Japanese government census pegs the population at from 1,000 to 2,000 birds.

The Fish And Wildlife Service has ruled listing the woodpecker as endangered “may be warranted” but it already is adequate protected under Japanese law.

Sugiyama said that in Japan the bird is considered both an official endangered species and a national monument. It’s also Okinawa’s prefectural bird.

Japan has an active conservation and breeding project for the 10-inch-tall woodpecker, Sugiyama said.

The Marine Corps is part of that project, he added. A flier is distributed to all troops using the JTWC notifying them of the importance of recording any Noguchi woodpecker sightings.

“We are actually finding that they can adapt to noise and development,” he said. “Some nests have even been discovered close to roads.”

As part of a 1996 pact to return to Okinawa 21 percent of land the U.S. military then occupied, more than half the JWTC land is to be returned. But the hand-over hinges on building new helicopter landing zones on the remaining section of the base.

The new infrastructure would “have some effect on the woodpeckers,” Sugiyama said. But the new landing locations were chosen based on a four-year environmental survey, he said, “so the impact would be minimal on the woodpecker population.”

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