Juneau’s Planning Commission adopted a variance to an existing City and Borough of Juneau ordinance that will allow contractors upgrading a dangerous section of Glacier Highway to blast at times and a proximity to eagle nests currently deemed off limits.
Originally Juneau’s Community Development Department recommended the Planning Commission follow existing city regulations on blasting near eagles. Existing city regulation prohibits blasting “between March 1 and May 31 and blasting should be prohibited within 330 feet of an active nest between June 1 and Aug. 31.”
Community Development submitted a revised recommendation on Dec. 14, advising the Commission to allow road construction activity within 330 feet of 10 eagles’ nests on Glacier Highway between approximately mile 29.5 and mile 33.6.
Dale Pernula, director of the Community Development Department, said his staff’s recommended actions for blasting around eagles’ nests came primarily from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re not eagle experts,” Pernula said. We’ve always relied entirely on recommendations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Fish and Wildlife requires the applicant minimize the project footprint, minimize construction time within the 330 feet zone of eagle nests, install guardrails outside of the breeding season and conduct eagle monitoring and nest surveys, according to a Community Development memorandum.
Proponents of the variance to city regulation say modern blasting is less of a disturbance than past practices.
“What surprised me with this whole application is I think the public perception of what blasting is is rock flying everywhere, ripping limbs off trees,” Commissioner Dan Miller said. “Now everything is in a computer. There’s hardly any rock flying around.” Miller said he would like this to be pointed out in future applications.
“That said, in the future it would be nice if DOT would emphasize their willingness to work around the sensitive eagle nesting dates. And promote that with their contractors,” Miller said. He voted in favor of DOT’s request during Tuesday’s meeting.
Opponents say they want the commission to uphold the city’s current ordinance and the commission may have been pressured to approve the variance by the state. Commissioner Nathan Bishop, who cast the sole no vote, said state pressure was a reason for his decision.
Tina Brown of Juneau, speaking for herself and for the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said just because U.S. Fish and Wildlife has taken eagles off the endangered species list doesn’t mean they should be harmed.
“They are making a comeback now,” she said.
Brown said the commission should take into consideration the popularity with visitors of Juneau’s wildlife.
“We have an opportunity for setting an example by showing we value our wildlife,” she said.
Brown owns a tour company in Juneau and she said her customers are thrilled to see eagles.
“Do we really want to be known as the place that shoots eagles at Eagle Beach?” she asked.
Brown said that even though killing an eagle comes with federal penalties, “penalties do not bring eagles back to life. Eagle monitors just count dead eagles, they do not bring them back to life.”
In an email interview after the meeting Brown said she was disappointed with the commission’s decision.
“It is unfortunate that Alaska DOT was unprepared to provide details on the blasting techniques that they want to use within 330 (feet) of at least seven active eagle nests and during breeding season, as well as information on the timing of the blasts,” Brown said.
Brown also said she felt the commission should have followed city staff’s original recommendation and “continue using CBJ’s current higher standards of protection of eagles as recommended by CBJ Staff - or at least delay the decision until ADOT could provide more information,” Brown said. “Now we look forward to bringing this issue before our Assembly members.”
The Department of Transportation’s contractor for the project has agreed to take out 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 should a bald eagle be killed during construction.
Potential impacts to bald eagles include loss of two year’s productivity for up to 11 breeding pairs, according to a DOT 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.
Brenda Wright, a Juneau Audubon Society board member, said if blasting occurs with relaxed regulations during nesting, Juneau could lose as many as 20 young eagles over two years.
“I strongly urge, please do not decrease protection in the City and Borough of Juneau,” Wright 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, with blasting potentially damaging seven.
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.
Construction is planned to run through September 2013.
• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at email@example.com.