(STL.News) – Governor Ralph Northam today announced a comprehensive approach to address the loss of habitat for colonial nesting birds on the South Island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT), and create a backstop against the federal government’s failure to protect migratory birds.
The South Island is where construction equipment will be based during expansion of the HRBT, a project critical for reducing congestion and improving safety in eastern Virginia. It is the largest project ever for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
The South Island is an artificial island where the bridge transitions to a tunnel. Since the HRBT was constructed in the 1950s, South Island has become the nesting site for as many as 25,000 migratory birds, including terns, gulls, and other colonial nesting species.
Virginia is acting because in 2018, federal officials reinterpreted a longstanding provision of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed into law in 1918, to significantly limit the protections it provides for migratory birds. Had this federal policy remained unchanged, it would have protected the birds on South Island.
The plan for migratory birds includes these components:
- New policy backstop. The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) has initiated the process to develop a regulation to define and permit “incidental take” of migratory birds for major commercial, industrial, and construction projects in the Commonwealth. This rule would make Virginia one of the first states to “backstop” recent federal rollbacks of longstanding migratory bird protections. DGIF will release a discussion draft of the rule for comment in the coming weeks
- New habitat for nesting. DGIF will provide habitat for nesting waterbirds by preparing an artificial island adjacent to the HRBT, known as Rip Raps Island (The Department of Conservation and Recreation owns the island, which is also known as Fort Wool.). In addition, DGIF will seek authorization to procure and position barges to provide additional nesting habitat in advance of the upcoming nesting season
- Bird management plan. Before construction begins, the HRBT design builder will develop a bird management plan to ensure effective deterrence of nesting and treatment of nests, eggs, and young that may become established on the HRBT’s South Island. The firm will do this in consultation with VDOT and DGIF
- Study possible new long-term habitat. DGIF will accelerate its work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess the feasibility of creating an artificial island to provide long-term habitat for displaced waterbirds
- Restoring habitat after construction. Upon completion of construction, VDOT will restore a portion of nesting habitat on South Island to the maximum extent possible
- Ongoing study: Interactions of Infrastructure and Natural Resources. VDOT and Virginia’s Chief Resiliency Officer commissioned the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to study interactions among transportation infrastructure, migratory birds and other wildlife, and climate change in coastal Virginia
“This plan demonstrates that infrastructure and development can and must be compatible with wildlife conservation,” said Governor Northam. “It also shows that Virginia is stepping up when federal policies change environmental protections.”
“Infrastructure projects succeed when they are built in harmony with all of the Commonwealth’s priorities,” said Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine. “Working together here in Virginia, I believe we have found an approach that puts us on a path to success.”
“Virginia is a world class outdoor recreation destination, and the birds using the Atlantic Flyway that stop along our shores are a big reason why,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Protecting wildlife resources is challenging under the best of circumstances and it becomes even harder when federal partners weaken longstanding policies.”
The Office of the Governor and relevant agencies will continue this work and will be prepared to accommodate the birds when they return for the spring 2020 nesting season and beyond. Additional details will be provided soon.
Contracts to expand the HRBT include a fixed completion date of November 1, 2025.