Sometimes I’m amazed that any animals manage to survive in this monstrous machine called “civilization” that we humans have built for ourselves. Even constructions that seem completely innocent can wreak havoc on the other, less “evolved” species.
I thought of all this last week when I got a news release from the environmental law firm Earthjustice announcing a new lawsuit from a coalition of Hawaii organizations against the state Department of Transportation. The reason for the suit? The department’s failure “to address injuries and deaths of three species of critically imperiled seabirds caused by bright lighting at state-operated airports and harbors on Kauai, Maui and Lanai,” according to the lawsuit.
The groups represented by Earthjustice–Hui Ho‘omalu i Ka ‘Aina, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and the Center for Biological Diversity–assert in their suit that the threatened species Newell’s shearwater and the endangered species Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels are all risk from the bright lights at Hawaii’s harbors and airports.
“The seabirds are attracted to bright lights, like those at the department’s airport and harbor facilities,” states the news release. “Indeed, those facilities are among the largest documented sources in the state of injury and death to the birds. The seabirds become disoriented and circle the lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or crash into nearby buildings.”
According to Earthjustice, last October the state DOT “abruptly broke off discussions with federal and state wildlife agencies regarding its participation in an island-wide habitat conservation plan to minimize and mitigate harm to the rare seabirds on Kaua‘i.” Now the groups want the DOT “to comply with its obligations under the Endangered Species Act to minimize and mitigate harm to the imperiled seabirds by securing incremental take permit coverage of its activities on all three islands,” according to the news release.
Put simply, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibits activities that “take” (harass, injure or kill) endangered species. Given that some activities will inevitably harm species, organizations like the DOT can first obtain an “incidental take permit” from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but such permits place various restrictions on the activity. The groups filing the suit allege that the Hawaii DOT never did this.
“The tragic deaths of these endangered seabirds were preventable,” said Brian Segee, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in the Aug. 23 news release. “The Department of Transportation can’t keep ignoring the Endangered Species Act. The department needs to do right by these amazing birds and improve conditions on the ground to offset the real harm caused over the years by these very bright lights.”
For its part, the DOT denies that it’s done anything wrong. Indeed, though DOT officials refused to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, they did release a rather long statement to the press on Aug. 24:
“The Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) is tasked with the essential role of ensuring safe transportation facilities for the citizens of Hawaii as well as the millions of visitors to the Islands each year,” says the DOT statement. “HDOT also plays another critical role–that of a trustee of the State’s environmental resources which requires it to conserve and maintain natural resources for the benefit of all the citizens of the State. HDOT takes both of these responsibilities extremely seriously and always seeks to identify ways to improve management of its facilities for the benefit of natural resources while maintaining safe operations.
“In the past several years, HDOT has proactively evaluated ways that its facilities can be operated in a manner that is most protective of all of the Islands’ sensitive resources, including threatened and endangered seabirds and other species. For example, HDOT recently expended hundreds of millions of dollars to install energy efficient lighting improvements at the State airports and commercial harbors to avoid impacts to sensitive species on the Islands as well as millions of dollars to safely translocate the endangered Nene away from airport facilities. HDOT has been and continues to be actively engaged with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with overseeing implementation of the federal Endangered Species Act, to ensure that the facilities are operated in ways that are consistent with federal laws and policies. HDOT has also been open to meeting with environmental groups and other interested parties to explore effective ways of further benefiting listed and sensitive species.
“Given its steadfast commitment to protecting Hawaii’s listed species, HDOT was disappointed to learn today that Earthjustice filed a lawsuit alleging that state-operated airports and harbors on Kauai, Maui and Lanai have resulted in unauthorized take of federally listed seabirds. HDOT will vigorously defend the State’s interest in this suit. While HDOT cannot comment on the specific allegations in an active lawsuit, it does want to reaffirm its commitment to operate its facilities in manners which are protective of all sensitive species and are consistent with legal requirements.”
Photo of band-rumped storm petrel: Andre Raine KESRP/Flickr