New Jersey’s environmental agency pleads guilty to destroying protected habitats of two endangered birds while creating one for another species

A red-shouldered hawk flutters its feathers on a branch

The red-shouldered hawk is an endangered species that the department is tasked with protecting. Instead, it damaged the bird’s habitat while making room for the American woodcock.(Robin Rudd/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

  • New Jersey’s environmental agency intends to retribute for harming land for the endangered birds it was supposed to protect.

  • The damage occurred when the department was trying to create habitat for another bird species, the American woodcock.

  • It’s unclear how the penalties will work when the department is both the accuser and the defendant.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has accused itself of damaging the habitat of threatened and endangered birds it was supposed to protect.

The work was designed to create habitat for one bird species, but actually ended up destroying habitat for two other species.

The department acknowledged that it had filed a violation notice and threatened penalties against its division of fish and wildlife over unauthorized work in February and March at the Glassboro Wildlife Management Area in Clayton, County Gloucester County.

It was unclear how any sanctions could work when the DEP is both the accuser and the defendant. It also wasn’t immediately clear whether the money could actually change hands. The department did not respond to questions about potential fines.

The work involved clearing vegetation and disturbing soil on nearly 3 acres of what the state calls “Outstanding Resource Value Freshwater Wetlands.” Prior to the works, this land was considered suitable habitat for the barred owl, classified as endangered, and the red shouldered hawk, an endangered species.

The project also cleared and disturbed an additional 12 acres of land near wetlands known as transition areas, which are also protected.

The DEP declined on Friday to discuss how the work was done without authorization.

On its website, the department wrote Feb. 1 that the work sought to create 21 acres of habitat for the American woodcock, a member of the sandpiper family that uses its long, narrow beak to feed on earthworms in moist soil. . The project was designed to create a “meadow habitat”.

But in doing so, the state destroyed stands of mature oak and pine in and near wetlands and replenished some wetlands, four conservation groups said in a letter to the department in early March complaining about the work. The agency issued the infringement notice on April 6.

“Wetland soil and flora that were previously undisturbed have been destroyed, and mature forest that was already the habitat of numerous rare species of plants and birds has been cleared,” the groups wrote. “All the trees have been cut down and all the stumps torn down.”

Tom Gilbert, a leader at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said, “This should never have happened. They also need to take steps to improve their clearly inadequate internal review process and meaningfully engage the public.”

Jaclyn Rhoads, deputy executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, praised the state for acknowledging its mistake, but said the DEP should provide a list of ongoing projects on its website for public review.

“It is thanks to the public that we have been able to stop the further destruction of this landscape,” he said.

Agency spokesman Larry Hajna said the Fish and Wildlife Division’s Office of Land Management must implement appropriate soil conservation measures within 10 days and submit a plan within 30 days to restore the site. This must include removing any wood chips lodged there.

By the end of April, the DEP intends to issue a notice of assessment of the fine.

Fish and Wildlife will propose additional environmentally beneficial measures, which will be subject to a public comment period, Hajna said.

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