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Wildlife advocates file suit over bird deaths at Petaluma River bridge project

  • Swallows work at building nests on the nets under the Highway 101 bridge in Petaluma in 2013. (PD FILE, 2013)

A coalition of wildlife advocacy groups is asking a federal judge to halt work on a major freeway project in Petaluma to protect migratory birds that nest in the area.

Advocates say that Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration failed to consider the effect of $130 million construction at the Highway 101 bridges over the Petaluma River on the federally-protected cliff swallows that like to build their mud nests on the bridge girders. Caltrans later tried to keep the birds away using netting tacked underneath the bridge, but those nets wound up entangling and trapping the birds.

“The agencies are well aware that the netting is killing the birds ... and that the bird deaths are unlawful,” said Carter Dillard, director of litigation for the Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund, one of the organizations that filed the suit.

The advocates are asking a court in San Francisco to force the agencies to do additional environmental study before resuming work on the project, which will add HOV lanes to the congested highway. They say the agencies failed to study the population of cliff swallows, which is well-established on the bridge and well-known to bird watchers, and failed to study effects of and alternatives to netting.

“There have been problems with netting at other Caltrans sites, so this should have been a known event,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, also a plaintiff in the case.

No date has been set for a hearing, though the advocacy groups say they will press for quick judicial action if the agencies don't respond promptly.

The Federal Highway Administration declined to comment because the situation is part of an active lawsuit. Caltrans also wouldn't comment on the lawsuit, but repeated its previous statement that it had long-since fixed any problems with the netting.

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