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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Owls Shot Out of the Sky Fail to Faze Judge

BROOKLYN (CN) - Three snowy white owls - the bird made popular as Hedwig in the Harry Potter stories - were properly shot down to protect New York City's airspace, a federal judge ruled.

Friends of Animals had filed suit just before Christmas in 2013, a few weeks after it said the world "woke to learn that over the weekend government agents had shot and killed three snowy owls ... considered a cherished find by bird watchers."

Uncle Sam had carried out the shootings in coordination with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey under the Gull Hazard/Bird Hazard Reduction Program, saying one of the birds could interfere with planes landing and taking off at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The danger of bird strikes became a household topic for New Yorkers in early 2009 when US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger took on hero status for landing a jet in the Hudson River when its engine failed after being hit by a bird.

Friends of Animals said the program has resulted in the "deaths of tens of thousands of birds at or near" the airport since 1994.

It sued Agriculture Department William Clay, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Brooklyn, but U.S. District Judge John Gleeson dismissed the case Friday.

Gleeson said he was "not persuaded" that APHIS did not consider a "range of reasonable alternatives."

While the National Environmental Policy Act requires agencies to explore all alternatives, that obligation remains at the agency's discretion, he added.

"APHIS did consider a wide range of alternatives, including nonlethal methods," the 17-page opinion states.

"I hope that APHIS and the PA can find tools to diminish the danger to planes without killing so many birds," Gleeson added. "But ultimately, I am persuaded that APHIS was sufficiently thorough ... to satisfy the requirements of NEPA and the [Animal Protection Act]."

Friends of Animals had also contended that Fish and Wildlife Service exceeded its authority under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, thus violating the Animal Protection Act, in issuing permits in 2013 and 2014 to take down the birds.

Gleeson did not buy this, however, highlighting a section of a 2013 permit that allows for certain migratory birds to be killed when they "are posing a direct threat to human safety."

The judge nevertheless did blast the emergency permits as being "disturbingly vague."

"And I understand why, as a policy matter, an emergency exception that is employed too casually - as an attempt to evade the requirements of the permit itself - is not desirable," he wrote.

Gleeson also said he was "mindful that there is a practical limit on the ability to determine in advance what measures might be necessary to keep the airport safe."

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