Justice Dept. Threatens Criminal Case over Birds Injured by [Hawaii] DOT Lights

Tom Warne Report, 16 April 2013

KHON2 – April 10, 2013

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to take criminal action against the Hawaii Department of Transportation because of the effect street lights are having on wedge-tailed shearwater birds. The birds come to rest at their colony at dusk after spending the day hunting for food. HPU Assistant Professor of Oceanography David Hyrenbach estimates that about 10,000 wedge-tailed shearwaters breed on Manana Island.

The birds lay their eggs in the summer, and in November and December, the majority of the babies are ready to take their first flight. This usually happens at night, and sometimes, the baby birds’ first flight is also their last.

“If there’s bright lights, they’re attracted to the lights, and instead of going out to sea, they go on shore or are blown on shore and that’s when those bad interactions happen,” Hyrenback said. This includes flying into street lights, wires, getting hit by a car, or attacked by a dog or cat.

The Sea Life Park’s Seabird Rehabilitation Center cares for the shearwaters that have a chance of survival.

“We’ve been doing a study about a 10-mile road from Hawaii Kai to Olomana Golf Course and in just the two months, when the fledging happens, we have found along the roads on average about 100 birds every year,” said Hyrenbach. He said street lights are hurting and killing some baby shearwaters, which the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating.In December, the DOJ informed the Hawaii DOT of a multi-year investigation of DOT lights causing the unlawful deaths of protected birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, by which the shearwaters are protected.

“Fixing the lights is so easy,” said Hyrenbach. But it is also very expensive.Since 2007, the state has installed shielded lights, which omit much less light than other street lights. With approximately 11,000 streetlights, only 1,800 of them are the shielded lights. The DOT says each new light costs $400, and comes from the State Highway Fund. The Attorney General’s office has hired a private law firm to defend the DOT in case criminal indictments are issued.

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