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Eagles in blast zone of proposed Glacier Highway work

Posted: December 2, 2011 - 12:04am

Construction on Glacier Highway near mile 30 could distress or damage seven or more eagle nests by fly rock from blasting.

“Potential impacts to bald eagles include loss of two year’s productivity for up to eleven breeding pairs,” according to an Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities permit for an eagle take, signed by Russell M. Oates, chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The blasting could also result in nest abandonment and adults flushing from nests “resulting in cracked, knuckled or otherwise unviable eggs,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Alaska is allowed a lethal take of 555 eagles each year, according to the service.

Bald eagles were removed from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife on Aug. 8, 2007.

DOT has a contractor picked for the project and contract documents are finalized. “The contract includes a $500,000 bond for “take” of any live bald eagles,” according to a city memorandum. The bond would cover penalties assessed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The seven threatened nests are at risk because they reside on the ocean side of the road at approximately the same height as the road, making them more susceptible to being hit by fly rock. Because of the steepness of the terrain, DOT’s “primary measure to prevent damage from fly-rock is through the $500,000 bond,” according to a city of Juneau memorandum.

Reuben Yoast, director of construction, maintenance and operation said the DOT has many tricks in its bag to mitigate damage from blasting, from blasting mats to absorb fly rock to varying the strength of blast charges.

“Really depends on the relationship to the nest in the blast area,” Yoast said.

DOT contractors regularly avoid objects when blasting, such as private property, power lines and power poles, Yoast said.

The request to distress eagle nests was part of DOT’s variance application to “widen and straighten the roadway between the North Eagle Beach Kayak Launch and Bessie Creek,” according to a Community Development Department memorandum. The construction is planned to occur within 330 feet of 10 eagle nests, potentially damaging seven.

The Department of Transportation said it plans to take measures to minimize the impacts of construction on eagle nests. The construction area is the “minimum necessary to bring the highway to current safety standards,” the Department says. And it will make “only the minimum shifts to realign curvature to current safety standards.”

The project will widen Glacier Highway from six feet to 30 feet with paved shoulders four feet wide. Construction is planned to run through September 2013.

DOT pulled its variance from the agenda when it was originally scheduled for a hearing on Nov. 8. The variance needed some work before being heard, said Dale Pernula, director of the Community Development Department. Pernula said the variance is re-scheduled for a hearing, Dec. 20. Though the city’s staff recommendations are not finalized, in a memo to the Board of Adjustment from Sept. 22 city staff make the recommendation to prohibit blast damage on nests from March 1 to May 31 when eagles are selecting nests and on active nests from June 1 to Aug. 31. DOT would also be required to hire a qualified eagle monitor for active nests.

The city’s current recommendation is similar to that of the Alaska Audubon Society.

Isolated cases like the seven nests on Glacier Highway do not typically rouse the ire of Alaska’s statewide Audubon Society, said Nils Warnock, Audubon’s executive director.

However, Warnock said, Audubon would like to see the DOT take measures to avoid impact on the nest or at least to lessen the impact.

“Generally we are not in favor of taking out our migratory birds,” he said.

And in agreement with the city, Warnock said a good way to avoid the worst damage is to not blast through breeding season.

“I would hope they could avoid blasting while the eagles are there,” Warnock said. “And try not to knock down nests.”

However, no such limitations are placed on this DOT project. While there will be a monitor on site to alert DOT of potentially avoidable harm to eagles and nests, there is no restriction on when DOT can blast, according to DOT regional director Al Clough.

DOT received a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service that “allows us to conduct our construction project without being limited by timing issues,” Clough said. “But we have to be very careful.” Nests will be monitored before during and after the project for disturbance.

Clough said the DOT can’t avoid the eagle nests by changing the project, “The highway is already there and the nests happen to be within (330 feet) of the road.

“It’s not like we can move the highway, or the nets for that matter,” Clough said.

However, he said, “we have zero intent or desire to harm eagles or their nests.”

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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