“Under federal law, government officials are required to fully consider and disclose all of the options to protect both the owls and airline safety. It is clear that officials chose to ignore this legal obligation, and instead focused only on shooting as an alternative. While we are very happy to hear that indiscriminate killing of owls won't be happening again, FoA intends to press forward to make sure the wildlife management program at JFK is more transparent in the future and brought into compliance with federal law.”
Harris said FoA will file a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division, as well as the directors of these agencies. He explains that under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, USFWS officials must provide the public with compelling justification on why a species, like the snowy owl, must be shot. In this case, the permit contains no such justification, giving airport wildlife managers carte blanche permission to do as they see fit.
Similarly, the National Environmental Protection Act requires that the federal officials that authorized these killings—in this case, agents at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division—fully explore the impacts and alternatives to the killing of these owls.
“But we cannot find a single discussion in the environmental documentation that the USDA’s Wildlife Services Division actually considered that trapping and relocation would be just as effective in protecting both the owls and aircraft,” Harris said.
Within hours after an investigative report by CBS New York that aired on Dec. 9 featuring an interview with FoA’s NY Director Edita Birnkrant (shown below) the Port Authority released this statement: “The Port Authority is working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to move immediately toward implementing a program to trap and relocate snowy owls that pose a threat to aircraft at JFK and LaGuardia airports. The Port Authority’s goal is to strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports to safeguard passengers on thousands of aircrafts each day. Over the past two weeks, five planes at JFK, Newark Liberty and LaGuardia airports were struck by snowy owls that have been migrating to our region in far higher than typical numbers this year.”
“I believe the Port Authority got caught with its pants down,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “This kind of shoot-first mentality results in reckless treatment of wildlife and we have environmental laws to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
“I’m greatly relieved that no more snowy owls will be shot at the airport, and I’m grateful to Tony Aiello and CBS New York for their smart, in-depth coverage, which bolstered FoA’s efforts to research the illegality of the Port Authority killings of the three snowy owls,” Birnkrant said.
The Arctic is home for snowy owls, but they have been migrating south this winter in larger numbers than usual this year. The Chicago Tribune reported Dec. 10 that snowy owls have been spotted in greater numbers than in past years along the lakeshore and in inland counties across northern Illinois. This "irruption," as birders refer to the migration south, suggests the owls' diet of small rodents might be in short supply in the Arctic, the report said.
"It's definitely one of the biggest irruptions on record," Brian Sullivan, a raptor expert who runs the citizen reporting and mapping project for Cornell University's ornithology lab, told the Tribune. "From what we can tell, this year is shaping up to be a pretty dramatic year."
Taking that into consideration, the actions taken by CBS New York and FoA will save the lives of countless snowy owls who happen to migrate in the New York area.
Birnkrant pointed out that the Port Authority’s refusal to comment yesterday while this story became viral spoke volumes, and their backtracking within just hours of the media reports and FoA’s opposition is a victory for the owls.
“I spoke to Ron Marsico at the Port Authority yesterday, and demanded to know why they didn’t consider relocating snowy owls at JFK, as Logan Airport in Boston does, instead of shooting them,” Birnkrant said. “Mr. Marsico told me, ‘It’s not legal to relocate snowy owls in New York state.’ Clearly, Mr. Marsico was wrong about that, because within 24 hours the Port Authority has reversed their kill policy and decided to do just that—relocate snowy owls instead of killing them.”
FoA’s Wildlife Law Program focuses on the defense of wildlife and their habitats throughout the world. Attorneys with the Wildlife Law Program utilize a variety of environmental laws to promote the rights of wildlife, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
You can also view a segment on CBS Boston about the snowy owls, featuring Edita Birnkrant, by clicking here.