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Change of course'

If blue herons return to a rookery tree near the proposed Billings Ranch Golf Club, it could mean realigning part of the Ashland golf course to give them space

ASHLAND ' An unused great blue heron rookery could alter plans to build part of an 18-hole golf course just north of town to ensure that, if birds return, they can breed undisturbed from sliced tee shots and lawn mowers.

State wildlife biologists want developers of the proposed Billings Ranch Golf Club to stay 300 feet away from the rookery, which is a series of heron nests in a Ponderosa pine tree on land tapped as part of the proposed course.

However, if no herons roost there over the next six months, the site officially could be declared abandoned and the setback lifted.

I'm not a bird. I don't know what's going to happen, said Michael Peru, operating manager of the corporation developing the &

36;8 million to &

36;10 million course.

If one shows up, we have an issue, Peru said. If it doesn't, who cares?

Anticipating the 300-foot setback identical to one granted in 2000 to the Bear Creek Greenway, developers drew in the fifth hole to steer just clear of the line, Peru said. If a pair of the long, lean herons do return to the nests and a Jackson County conditional-use permit requires larger setbacks, then the hole would have to be altered, Peru said.

We have some room to move around a little bit, he said. Nothing earth-shaking.

But conservationists like Pepper Trail believe the 300-foot setback is a very minimal standard that should be increased to protect the public's wildlife from harm by a private business venture like a golf course.

In general, when you're talking about a public resource, there may be a different standard applied for public use (like the Greenway) than private use like a golf club, said Trail, who is conservation director for the Rogue Valley Audubon Society.

Protection of heron rookeries falls under the state Forest Practices Act, which forbids any logging or other actions within a quarter-mile of a rookery during the nesting season, which runs Feb. 15 through July 31.

Permanent structures, such as buildings or golf greens, must comply year-round, said Mark Vargas, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who has reviewed the course proposal.

But county land ordinances in the past have called for 300-foot buffers around three other rookeries, prompting the similar setback for the Greenway bike path near the proposed course, Vargas said.

Vargas said he recommended the 300-foot buffer in this instance for consistency.

They're a unique resource and warrant various levels of protection, Vargas said.

This particular rookery, a rarity along Bear Creek, was created in 1998 when a group of herons abandoned a rookery near the city's water treatment plant in favor of the large Ponderosa pine on county-owned land.

Its peak use came in 2000, when 16 adult pairs hatched 25 offspring, ODFW reports show. But the following year, only 10 adult pairs harbored nine offspring there.

No use was documented in 2002 and '03, according to the ODFW reports compiled by John Sully, a volunteer working for the agency.

Under Forest Practices Act standards, a rookery is considered abandoned after three continuous years of no use.

How long the rookery has been unused is in dispute. Peru said it's been vacant the past four years, while Trail says there is no concrete evidence available that it was used or unused over the past two nesting seasons.

The Jackson County Planning Department is considering a conditional-use permit to allow development of the course, which is just outside Ashland city limits. A public hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium in Medford.

The heron-nesting season starts in three weeks, and if as little as one nesting heron pair sets up house in the rookery the site will be deemed active again, Vargas said.

Then any setback would be observed at least through July 2007 ' even if it remains unused during the ensuing three years, Vargas said.

It appears that it's going to be abandoned, Vargas said. It would be pretty odd if they left it for two years and then came back.

Peru said he considers herons an asset to the course, not a design liability.

We'd love to have them around. They're gorgeous things, Peru said. We won't interfere with them.

This pond on the Billings Ranch property north of Ashland will become a feature in a proposed golf course. A large pine at the site has been used off and on as a blue heron rookery in recent years. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli