NORFOLK, Va. (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service illegally approved destruction of bald eagle nests on public land near Norfolk International Airport by harassing the protected birds with paintball guns and fireworks, an eagle protection group claims in court.
Eagle On Alliance (EOA) and its leader Carol Senechal sued Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, and Wendi Weber, regional director for Fish and Wildlife’s migratory birds division, in Federal Court.
The eagle lovers challenge Uncle Sam’s authorization to destroy nests and harass a pair of bald eagles living in the publicly owned Norfolk Botanical Garden.
Norfolk Botanical Garden (NBG) is just across Lake Whitehurst from the airport. The lake is an attractive source of food for eagles, which have been known to collide with planes flying into and out of the airport.
Bald eagles, a national symbol of the United States, were nearly extirpated in the Lower 48 until the federal government protected them. They may have a wingspan greater than 7 feet and weigh up to 9 lbs. The largest tree nest ever found weighed a ton, and was 8 feet wide and 12 feet deep.
The complaint states: “On April 26, 2011 the female of the NBG Eagles was killed by an airplane at the Norfolk International Airport as she sat on the end of the runway eating a fish. At the time of the accident there were three eaglets in the NBG nest that were removed and raised at the Wildlife Center of Virginia until they fledged in July 2011. The male, affectionately known as ‘Dad Norfolk,’ was unharmed, and has had a new mate since at least last April 2012.”
The eagle alliance says the federal government swooped in soon after, issuing a permit to the City of Norfolk allowing it to remove three nests.
“A week later – apparently because Dad Norfolk and his new mate were by then actively building a nest for the purpose of reproducing – the FWS issued an ‘amended’ permit, again without any public notice and comment, authorizing the City to remove up to three ‘active or inactive bald eagle nests at NBG ‘to alleviate a safety emergency at the Norfolk International Airport by 11/9/2012,’ and to ‘disturb bald eagles’ by removing ‘partial nests under construction’ and by harassing them with paintball guns, pyrotechnics, bright lights and air cannons, to prevent renesting,” according to the complaint.
Eagle On Alliance claims the government has destroyed seven nests since the original permit was issued, and the remaining eagles have been harassed with paintball guns and lights.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division is helping to destroy the bald eagle nests, the plaintiffs say.
“According to an internal document obtained by EOA under open records laws, from the outset the USDA/WS’ plan for removing nests under the permits was to wait until each nest ‘approach[ed] completion’ before destroying it. In other words, the federal government waits until the eagles have almost completed the arduous task of building each such nest before tearing it down, requiring the eagles to begin the entire, albeit completely futile, process anew – all at federal taxpayer expense.”
In addition to their homes, the Norfolk Botanical Garden bald eagles have also lost their stardom – the NBG ended its popular, internationally viewed Eagle Cam. The last video posted on the NBG’s website is dated 2011, and shows an adult bald eagle feeding a tiny eaglet in its nest.
The federal agencies issued statements citing concerns for the safety of the flying public and bald eagles, which the USDA says pose an extremely high hazard risk to aircraft.
Most bird strikes – 65 percent – cause little damage to aircraft, though the birds nearly always die upon colliding with a plane or being sucked up into jet engines: an occurrence known as avian ingestion. Bird strike damage to aircraft costs $400 million a year in the United States and $1.2 billion to commercial aircraft worldwide, according to estimates.
The EOA claims that the federal agencies and the City of Norfolk acted without accepting public comment and against advice biologists, who say nest destruction harassment won’t alleviate the threat of collision because of the attractive habitat around the airport.
“Despite this scientific knowledge, and particularly the consensus of the biologists consulted by the FWS about this particular matter that attempts to remove the nests at NBG would not alleviate any safety hazard at the Airport allegedly posed by these particular birds, the FWS nevertheless granted the City both the original and amended permits, pursuant to which up to seven eagles’ nests have now been destroyed at the Botanical Gardens, with the NBG Eagles showing no signs of leaving,” according to the complaint.
Senechal and her group say the airport recently spent $11 million on a cosmetic update to its lobby, but refuses to spend comparable resources to make “the facility less attractive to birds for the purpose of reducing bird-strikes.”
They claim the defendants violate the Eagle Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
They want an order setting aside the permits and an injunction preventing future permits.
They are represented by Katherine Meyer with Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, of Washington, D.C.
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