Virginia Governor Announces Plan to Protect Migratory Birds

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Since she was four years old Roberta Kellam has been learning to identify birds and other naturally occurring flora and fauna thanks to an interest she inherited from her father. 

“He made me feel like noticing the different species in the natural environment was special and important,” she said. Now a stay-at-home grandma living on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, she’s instilled a love of the pastime in her grandkids. 

“I try and convert all who come into my company into my cult of birds,” she said laughing.

Three royal terns stand on the beach along the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo via Roberta Kellam)

This love of birds is what inspired her to spend late winter organizing a letter writing campaign in support of several notable bird species that call a manmade island at the mouth of the Chesapeake bay their home.  

“Birds have migrated over there for decades and the population nesting there has gotten bigger and bigger,” Kellam said of the land mass at the southern tip of the Hampton Road Bridge Tunnel, noting at least 80% of two species of terns now reside exclusively on the island. “It’s a very critical hub for the continuation of the species in Virginia.” 

But construction projects to expand the often-car choked tunnel, and looser regulations under the Trump administration, have put the habitats for these birds at risk. And while Trump is using federal agencies to lower environmental roadblocks, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, citing what he called a “failure” on the part of the federal government, issued a new plan Friday to protect bird habitats in the Chesapeake Bay.

“This plan demonstrates that infrastructure and development can and must be compatible with wildlife conservation,” Northam said in a statement following the plan’s announcement. “It also shows that Virginia is stepping up when federal policies change environmental protections.”

The initiative includes developing a regulation to define and permit projects in relation to their impact on bird species. It also orders the creation of a new island to offer space for migrating birds.

Northam’s announcement comes on the heels of a proposed rule change by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which, according to a January press release, will narrow the scope of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to only cover intentional injury to birds, not unintentional injury as it did before. 

“The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to conserve wildlife and habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Bird conservation is an integral part of that mission. We are taking action today to make sure our rules and regulations are clear,” said Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Skipwith said federal courts had issued mixed opinions when as to how wildlife impacts should be regulated and this new rule will reduce confusion. 

“We look forward to an open and transparent process that will ensure ample opportunity for public input,” she said. 

But wildlife advocates say the rule will open the door to unregulated slaughter of at-risk species and it continues a trend started by Trump the year he entered office.   

Catherine Kilduff, a Virginia-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed out in an op-ed for The Hill the ongoing issues faced by migratory birds in Chesapeake Bay, and specifically the Trump-era roll backs that she says have led to the destruction of pivotal habitats. She said Virginia’s own transportation department has used the Trump policy to destroy habitats as it works to expand key transportation projects like the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel, though Northam’s plan appears to address these concerns. 

“I’m relieved Virginia decided to work to save the roughly 25,000 seabirds threatened by the Hampton Roads bridge,” Kilduff said in a statement following Northam’s Friday announcement.

Northam’s plan appears to be fast-moving – he promised to have habitats in good enough shape for migratory birds “when they return for the spring 2020 nesting season and beyond.”

Kellam says she’s hopeful that Northam will make sure the terns are being protected – and she approaches the plan from a unique vantage point; no stranger to environmental issues, she used to be a member of the state’s Water Board until Northam took office. 

Notably, she was one of the members of the board who voted to deny building permits to two natural gas pipelines that plan to bring the resource from the Ohio Valley down to the coast. After her vote against the projects, and her the expiration of her term, Northam replaced her with another person who approved the pipelines.  

When asked if she trusted Northam to make good on his promise to protect the birds, in light of his support for the pipelines, Kellam responded with a long pause. 

“I am very encouraged and hopeful about all aspects of the plan they put forward,” she said. “Being able to have transparency on funding and working together to make sure everybody is doing what needs to be done is something I will continue to do.” 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule change is accepting public comment now through March 19.

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