The multibillion-dollar Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion project aims to add additional lanes to alleviate traffic congestion. To do this, it will temporarily install giant drills and machinery on an island that also provides the best remaining predator-free habitat in the area for nesting royal terns and other water birds. The state says it will try to scare the birds away, but is apparently ready to destroy their nests if necessary.
The birds — up to 25,000 terns, gulls and skimmers — are running out of time. Left to themselves, they would start nesting in just a few short months. Yet the state is still claiming that a federal legal opinion and various bureaucratic hurdles prevent it from helping. In fact, that oft-cited opinion does nothing to restrict states from protecting birds themselves.
While hazing or killing the birds in the course of the construction itself no longer requires a permit, the state says that everything that could be done to provide alternative habitat still does. That leaves the birds’ welfare at the bottom of the priority list, virtually guaranteeing a bloodbath in the spring if nothing is done quickly.
Instead, the state could build a new breeding island for the birds — a tried-and-true technique, and one that Virginia has used successfully before. But this will take time, and construction needs to start almost immediately.
To be clear, bird advocates are not arguing against the much-needed tunnel expansion. All we want is for the state to build an alternate island with dredge spoil — material that is already widely available nearby. The cost of creating alternate habitat for the colony is estimated at about $10 million — around 0.2 percent of the overall project’s construction cost.
Whatever its intentions, Virginia has so far done nothing to help the tern colony. It also chose not to join a lawsuit challenging the aforementioned federal legal opinion that eight other states have joined, including Maryland, New York and New Jersey. The commonwealth could also pass a law of its own to better protect birds — as California did — but it hasn’t done that either. And while it did hire experts from Virginia Tech to study the problem, it dismissed their recommendation to build an alternate nesting island.
The colony is the region’s largest royal tern nesting area. These migratory birds are an elegant, gull-like species with carrot-orange bills, and young that have a propensity to beg for food from their parents long after most other birds have “launched.” Sandwich terns, black skimmers and rare gull-billed terns also nest on the island, along with other terns and gulls. The gull-billed tern is listed as endangered in Virginia, and the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan calls for “intense and immediate management action” to save such species.
In summary, it’s a unique place for these birds. They’ve been driven out of other areas by development and predators such as cats, foxes and raccoons that have spread thanks to their ability to subsist on people’s trash. If the birds are displaced this spring and begin looking elsewhere for nesting sites, they also risk being struck by cars crossing the bridge — and potentially causing accidents — something that has happened multiple times in the past. That problem could be fixed by creating an alternate island farther from the roadway.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has a choice. It can, in effect, base its environmental policies on the federal government’s new legal interpretation of bird protection law, which says that migratory birds can be killed without regard so long as killing the birds is not the intention of the activity — one of the most damaging environmental decisions ever made. Or it can set its own path and help birds that will otherwise become victims of development.
I am sure that Virginia does not really regard migratory birds as an inconvenience to be swept aside when they happen to be in the way of progress. But that’s the message that the state government is sending. This is exactly the sort of thinking that has caused North America to lose 3 billion birds since 1970.
Authorities are taking similar decisions all across the United States on a regular basis. For the environmental community in our region, this choice facing Northam represents a watershed moment for the future of U.S. wildlife. If Virginia won’t save this hugely important bird colony when officials are fully aware of the situation and have all the tools at their disposal to remedy it, then what hope do wild birds and nature really have here? Please, Gov. Northam, save this critical habitat — and start the process of recovery for America’s birds.