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Language in state budget assures meetings between Caltrans, bird groups

  • Swallows caught and dead in the nets under the Highway 101 bridge over the Petaluma River in Petaluma on Thursday April 11, 2013. (PD FILE, 2013)

Caltrans will be obliged to meet with state and federal wildlife agencies and local bird advocates next year before resuming highway work in Petaluma, assuming Gov. Jerry Brown signs the state budget package on his desk.

The language in a broader bill prevents the state transportation agency from working on the Marin-Sonoma Narrows Highway 101 project during next year's bird migration season before its representatives discuss “exclusionary measures” to protect birds.

Tenth District Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, pushed the language to protect migratory cliff swallows, many of which were killed this spring in nets Caltrans applied under Highway 101 to keep them from building their mud nests on bridge supports.

Either because of the type of net or problems with their installation, birds were being trapped as they built or accessed their mud nests on the concrete.

Levine said Tuesday the budget package includes language assuring that, before work resumes during the spring 2014 migratory season, Caltrans will meet with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local conservation and community organizations that have expertise in migratory birds.

“It requires Caltrans to report back to the budget chairs of the Assembly and Senate how they complied with the law,” he said. “And they have to stay what steps they took.”

Caltrans must also discuss with the wildlife agencies and conservationists “ongoing operational plans for bird protection.”

“For Caltrans not to sit down with these groups is ridiculous,” Levine said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has asked a federal judge in San Francisco to halt work on the highway over the Petaluma River while the court considers their lawsuits arguing that the work endangers the federally protected birds.

The groups filed for an injunction last month and have a hearing June 28.

The groups say that netting designed to keep migratory birds away from the $130 million bridge project, which will widen Highway 101 over the river, instead entangled and killed dozens of them. The groups are asking the court to force the agency to do more extensive environmental review before resuming work.

Caltrans has said problems with the netting were inadvertent and were corrected.

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Danny Lutz said he hopes the language will encourage Caltrans to cooperate with conservationists before initiating work in environmentally sensitive areas.

“We would hope that the wording 'shall meet with and update' is not just an information download and is actually a conversation that enables public comment to affect the way the project is implemented,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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