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Judge denies request to stop Petaluma highway work over bird deaths

  • A judge declined to halt construction work at the Highway 101 bridge over the Petaluma River on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. Wildlife advocates want work to stop due to the deaths of swallows who nest on the bridge. (PD FILE, 2013)

A federal judge Tuesday denied an environmental coalition's request to stop work on the Highway 101 widening project at the Petaluma River bridge. The ruling clears the way for work to continue on the project.

The environmental groups said construction on the bridge is disturbing and even killing cliff swallows, a federally-protected bird species that uses the underside of the bridge as a nesting site.

In the 27-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar said the environmental groups did not show enough evidence that continuing work on the project would cause “likely future harms” to the swallow colony.

The bridge work, which began in December, is part of a $130 million Caltrans project to alleviate traffic congestion on Highway 101 through Petaluma.

Environmental groups said that netting installed under the bridge to keep cliff swallows away actually entangled and killed the birds.

Caltrans said workers had fixed early problems with the netting and no birds have been killed since April.

“We are pleased with the judge's ruling and will continue to protect native wildlife during construction of this vitally important project,” Caltrans said in a statement after the ruling.

Danny Lutz, an attorney who argued the plaintiffs' case, said the groups would decide next week whether to appeal the decision.

“We will regroup and evaluate all our options,” said Lutz, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “We are going to make it clear to the agencies that there is this passionate group of advocates interested in this cliff swallow colony.”

The suit, which was argued Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, was brought by Veronica Bowers and her Sebastopol bird care center, Native Songbird Care and Conservation, together with Madrone Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Marin Audubon Society and Golden Gate Audubon Society. The defendants are Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration.

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