msnbc.com
updated 1/25/2006 4:35:46 PM ET 2006-01-25T21:35:46

The fate of a vast irrigation project in south-central Arkansas, which foes say threatens the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpecker, remained undecided this week after a federal judge recused himself from hearing the case.

U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele disqualified himself and the case was reassigned to Judge Bill Wilson, a clerk in Eisele's Little Rock office said. The next hearing was set for Feb. 6.

Press accounts said that Eisele took himself off the case after discovering that the Audubon Society, to which he had made a donation in the past, had written a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Those plaintiffs, the National Wildlife Federation and its Arkansas state affiliate, have long opposed the $319 million Grand Prairie Area Demonstration Project, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says will save tapped-out groundwater aquifers in a 242,000-acre agricultural region.

The current lawsuit claims that the corps has not done adequate environmental studies in light of last year's sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, in the area. The plaintiffs want work halted on a Grand Prairie pumping station while the project's potential effects on the bird are studied.

Corps biologists and officials maintain that existing environmental studies and ongoing monitoring are adequate for now to ensure the safety of any ivory-bills in the project area.

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