For Immediate Release, January 16, 2014

Contact:  Veronica Bowers, Native Songbird Care & Conservation, (707) 484-6502
Susan Kirks, Madrone Audubon Society, (707) 241-5548
Barbara Salzman, Marin Audubon Society, (415) 924-6057
Megan Backus, Animal Legal Defense Fund, (707) 795-2533, x1010

Caltrans to Remove Bird-killing Nets at Highway Project, Vows to Use Safer Methods

Lawsuit Settlement Will Reduce Impacts on Nesting Swallows in Petaluma

SAN FRANCISCO— Conservation groups reached a settlement agreement today with the California Department of Transportation to remove netting from bridge overpasses at a highway-widening project in Petaluma, Calif., which trapped, killed and injured scores of cliff swallows and other migratory birds last spring. Caltrans will remove the deadly exclusionary netting from the Petaluma River Bridge and Lakeville Highway Overpass along Highway 101, and instead use hard surface or flexible exclusionary materials to prevent harm to nesting swallows.

“We’re pleased that Caltrans is removing the ineffective and deadly netting from these important swallow nesting locations, and will use safer measures to keep swallows from nesting in construction zones,” said Veronica Bowers of Native Songbird Care and Conservation. “It’s important that Caltrans continue to meet with wildlife agencies, conservation groups and our swallow expert before each nesting season during the project to assess the effectiveness of bird exclusion measures at the bridges.”

Today’s agreement is between Caltrans and Native Songbird Care and Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity, Golden Gate Audubon Society, Madrone Audubon Society and Marin Audubon Society. Since the project received federal funding, the Federal Highway Administration is also expected to sign the agreement in the coming weeks.

Caltrans will meet with the conservation groups and their swallow expert before each swallow nesting season for the remainder of the construction activities at the bridges, and will consider the groups’ proposals for other bird exclusionary and deterrence measures. It will also contribute to local community outreach and education about cliff swallows, with a focus on helping property owners and residents understand the nesting behavior of swallows displaced from the bridges.

Key measures that will improve protections for swallows include:

  • Removing all existing exclusionary netting from the bridges;
  • Wherever feasible, using hard surface exclusionary materials (such as plywood or plexiglass) to prevent cliff swallows from nesting on areas of the bridges under construction. Where hard surface exclusionary materials cannot be effectively applied — including on rounded surfaces such as columns — using flexible materials such as vinyl;
  • Only using netting as an exclusionary material as a last resort, after consideration of other methods proposed by the conservation groups and their swallow expert;
  • Removing nest starts from construction areas before swallows have completed nests, with a biological monitor ensuring that there are no birds or eggs in nests that are removed; and
  • Demolishing existing bridges outside of the swallow nesting season.

Caltrans will apply the exclusionary materials on the Lakeville Overpass Bridge and Petaluma River Bridge on footings, piers, rails and columns facing construction activity during the 2014 nesting season. All other areas of these bridges will remain available for swallow nesting.

“We will closely monitor the bird exclusion measures at both bridges to ensure that the settlement protects the swallows and make sure the bird kills of last spring do not ever occur again,” said Susan Kirks of the Madrone Audubon Society.

“We expect this agreement will influence measures to protect migratory birds at other Caltrans construction projects,” said Danny Lutz of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “The terms of this agreement will be enforceable by the federal court.”

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 at bridges in the highway-widening project in the Marin-Sonoma Narrows trapped, maimed and killed swallows returning to nest. Although exclusion of nesting birds is permitted by regulatory agencies and is often standard procedure for such construction projects, 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.

Conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit in May 2013 against Caltrans and federal transportation officials when the state agency refused to remove the netting that was killing swallows. Impacts on swallows at these bridges were not considered in the environmental impact statement prepared for the bridge work, and Caltrans claimed not to have known the extent of the large swallow colony that nests on the bridges annually. Several state and federal laws prohibit disturbing nesting birds or their nests. The lawsuit was filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the conservation groups, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The Washington, D.C., law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal assisted in the lawsuit and settlement agreement.

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