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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: California | North Bay / Marin | U.S. | Environment & Forest Defense
After Criticism, Caltrans to Rethink Deadly Bird Impacts of Petaluma Highway Project
The California Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are reevaluating the impacts of netting on bridge overpasses at a highway-widening project in Petaluma, Calif., which trapped, killed and injured scores of cliff swallows and other migratory birds this spring. The agencies must decide whether to do additional environmental review of the project by analyzing impacts to swallows nesting on the bridges. A new review could consider construction and exclusion alternatives that do not harm birds.
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After Intense Criticism, Caltrans to Rethink Deadly Bird Impacts of Petaluma Highway Project
Plaintiffs Seeking Measures to Avoid Impacts During Swallow Nesting Season
SAN FRANCISCO— The California Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are reevaluating the impacts of netting on bridge overpasses at a highway-widening project in Petaluma, Calif., which trapped, killed and injured scores of cliff swallows and other migratory birds this spring. The agencies must decide whether to do additional environmental review of the project by analyzing impacts to swallows nesting on the bridges. A new review could consider construction and exclusion alternatives that do not harm birds.
“Caltrans now has a chance to get this project right and should immediately supplement the environmental review so bird protection measures can be evaluated and in place before swallow nesting season,” said Veronica Bowers of Native Songbird Care and Conservation. “Disturbing the nesting colony and killing swallows again this spring is not an option.”
“There are some common-sense solutions Caltrans should evaluate, such as scheduling bridge construction work outside of nesting season or methods to encourage swallows to nest elsewhere during construction,”said Susan Kirks with the Madrone Audubon Society. “Rather than waste valuable time with an internal reevaluation process, Caltrans should start environmental review, get input from wildlife agencies and have a plan in place before next nesting season to avoid impacts to swallows.”
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit in May against Caltrans and the FHA for killing protected migratory birds when the agencies refused to remove deadly netting that was killing swallows nesting under bridges at a highway-widening project along Highway 101 in the Marin-Sonoma Narrows. Caltrans’ own contractors, as well as state and federal wildlife agencies, recommended that the agencies remove the ineffective netting.
The highway agencies have now asked the plaintiffs for information regarding impacts to swallows and whether those are significant enough to require a more complete environmental assessment. Impacts on swallows were not considered in the first environmental impact statement in preparation for bridge work, and Caltrans claimed not to have known the extent of the large swallow colony that nests on the bridges annually.
The plaintiffs submitted comments (see PDF) to Caltrans this month documenting impacts on swallows from improper installation and use of the exclusionary netting that trapped birds last spring, the failure of “repairs” to fix the problem, and construction disturbance of the nesting colony. The plaintiffs also provided a list of alternatives for continuing the bridge demolition and highway widening without harming protected birds. State and federal laws prohibiting disturbing nesting birds or their nests go into effect Feb. 15.
Every spring highly social, wide-roaming cliff swallows travel thousands of miles from South America to return to their nesting sites in the Petaluma area. These swallows nest on bridges and other human infrastructure as well as rocky cliffs and foothills. Exclusionary netting installed in February 2013 was documented by late March to be trapping, maiming and killing swallows returning to nest. Although exclusion of nesting birds is permitted by regulatory agencies and is often standard procedure for such construction projects, the netting is ineffective at this location, was sloppily installed, and was loosened by high winds. The netting did not prevent swallows from attempting to nest on the bridges. Better options are scheduling construction outside of nesting season, creating nearby nesting structures or deterring swallows from nesting on the bridges with nonlethal plastic or vinyl coverings over potential nest locations.
The entrapment and killing of swallows violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Golden Gate Audubon Society, Madrone Audubon Society, Marin Audubon Society and Native Songbird Care and Conservation. The Washington, D.C. law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal is assisting in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.