BIRDER'S JOURNAL
February 12, 2015

SUBJECT: Bald Eagles Still Have Federal Protection

 

bald eagle bnsf permit
Bald Eagle Nest, Oil Train, Myrick Marsh - La Crosse River Wetlands

My life over the past year has certainly taken a different turn. As you can tell from my lack of journal entries here on iwishicouldfly.com and my complete lack of journal entries on daycreek.com, my focus (for now at least) has shifted from my bird photography and videography to doing everything I can to protect the Upper Mississippi River Basin from the onslaught of increased hazardous materials being transported by rail. And that ain't all of it. It's the ever increasing amount of rail traffic and rail expansion. Disturbances to wildlife just from rail traffic alone can be extremely disruptive, and the more trains there are, the more frequent the disturbances become.

BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) wants to construct a double-track through La Crosse and Myrick Marsh (La Crosse River Wetlands). BNSF has 13 other projects along the Mississippi in Wisconsin alone in which they are adding cross-overs, sidings and pull-outs. CP (Canadian Pacific) also has projects occurring in Minnesota and Iowa.

It's my firm belief that none of these rail expansion projects would be occurring if it were not for the oil-frac industry. Yes, I get it. We need oil for our cars, commerce, etc. But the amount of harm that it is doing to our environment, directly and indirectly is not being taken into consideration.

I won't beleaguer you with all the details, because I could write a book about it. I will mention however that our plight to protect the citizens and environment of the Upper Mississippi River Basin has been met with resistance from government agencies that used to follow their mandate and have now drifted away from their mission statements.

Case in point, here's the first paragraph from the Wisconsin DNR (Department of Natural Resources) mission statement:

 

To protect and enhance our natural resources:

our air, land and water;
our wildlife, fish and forests
and the ecosystems that sustain all life
.

 

It sounds all really wonderful except their actions trump their words.

A large contingency of citizens and legislators asked the WDNR to conduct an EIS - Environmental Impact Statement on the double-track expansion in the La Crosse River Wetlands, as well as many other expansion projects currently under review along the Mississippi River corridor.

Last Friday our request was turned down and the Wisconsin DNR granted BNSF the permit to begin construction in the marsh. (They still need a permit from the Army Corp of Engineers however.)

I spent a good 60 hours of research, writing and crafting a 20+ page document highlighting why an EIS was required. We were told however that an EIS was not required by Wisconsin's DNR because they did an EIS equivalence.

Their equivalent EIS never ever considered secondary impacts that might arise due to the project. Considering that daily, over 430,000 barrels of oil would be transported across this new rail line, how could you not look at the potential for a secondary impact such as a spill? 430,000 barrels of oil per day is comparable to an oil pipeline. Oil pipelines trigger EIS's, why not a rail line? The Army Corp of Engineers along with the WDNR in 2006 stated that oil pipelines were hundreds of times safer than transporting oil by truck or by rail. Pipelines are safer, yet no EIS for a rail line. What gives?

On the subject of birds, I highlighted short-comings of the document including the lack of a detailed study of the Wisconsin Endangered Black Tern as well as photographic evidence that a Bald Eagle nest was close to the planned construction zone.

bald eagle nest bnsf myrick marsh

Bald Eagle Nest in close proximity to existing rail line.

Wisconsin's DNR rightfully mentioned that BNSF should avoid construction work during the Black Tern nesting season from May 15 to July 31, but NOTHING - ZERO - NADA was mentioned about the Bald Eagle nest.

I was flabbergasted. Did they even look at our comments? Our testimonies? My photographs of the nest?

This past Sunday, I received an email with some photos from one of our CARS - Citizens Acting for Rail Safety members (Carolyn) stating that the Bald Eagle pair that have nested in Myrick Marsh had returned.

That got my attention. I loaded up the car and headed out the door in search of the eagle pair. I located a pair flying high over the marsh, but no nest activity. This was a good sign however.

First thing Monday morning, Carolyn sent me a new photo taken at dawn with the pair sitting side-by-side in a tree in the marsh. Not on the nest however, but in close proximity.

bald eagles myric marsh bnsf

Eagle Pair at Myrick Marsh (Credit: Carolyn Jenkins)

Shortly thereafter I got on the phone with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, MN and spoke to the Bald Eagle Take Permit coordinator. The word "Take" means many things including disturbance to an active eagle nest. The key word however is active.

I asked what parameters were used to determine if an eagle nest was close enough to a construction project to cause a disturbance. I was informed that it varies based on the construction project and the tameness of the eagles, but typically they use a 660' radius from the nest location.

While on the phone, I was able to come close to pinpointing where the eagle nest was in relation to the proposed construction zone. I estimated it approximately 500' from the site.

aerial view bald eagle nest location

The second rail line will run parallel and west of the existing line. This is approximately 500' from the nest site.

Of course, I was looking for documented proof that this was an active site. We knew the pair had returned to the marsh, but were they active at the nest site?

Monday afternoon, I went over to check on the eagle's nest at 1:45 pm and low and behold, there was an eagle on the nest!

I consider the following photograph, the worst-best picture I ever took of an eagle's nest. The heat waves were so bad that it was extremely difficult to get a clear image, but it was at least good enough to prove that this is an active nest site.

Bald Eagle nest - Eagle on nest - Myrick Marsh - BNSF

The worst, best bald eagle photo I ever took!

Yesterday, February 11 I received an email from the Fish and Wildlife Service that it was agreed by their department, the Army Corp of Engineers and a representative from BNS that a permit will be required.

As to what exactly what BNSF will be required to do and if it will delay construction throughout the bald eagle nesting season has yet to be determined. We are all keeping our fingers crossed that the Fish and Wildlife Service along with the Army Corp of Engineers will do the right thing.

—Alan Stankevitz

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All photographs © 2002-2015, Alan Stankevitz

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