Birds injured by DOT lights may lead to criminal case

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to take criminal action against the State Department of Transportation.

It has to do with street lights and their effect on wedge-tailed shearwaters.

As dusk falls, the wedge-tailed shearwaters start returning to their colony at Flat Island, after spending the day hunting for food.

“You’ll see them circling around, circling, coming in,” said David Hyrenbach, HPU Assistant Professor of Oceanography.

This is just one of the spots off Windward Oahu where the shearwaters come to nest.

Another being Manana or “Rabbit” Island.

“In Manana here, I believe there’s about 10,000 wedge-tailed shearwaters that breed here,” said Hyrenbach.

The shearwaters lay their eggs in the summer, and by November and December, most of the babies are ready to take their first flight, and they do it at night.

But sometimes, their first flight is also their last.

“If there’s bright lights, they’re attracted to the lights and instead of going out to sea the go on shore or are blown on shore and that’s when those bad interactions happen,” said Hyrenbach.

Such as flying into the street lights or wires, getting hit by a car, or getting attacked by a dog or cat.

Sea Life Park’s Seabird Rehabilitation Center cares for the shearwaters that still have a fighting chance.

“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 says the street lights are hurting and killing the baby shearwaters.

The US Department of Justice is also investigating.

In December, the DOJ notified the State DOT of a multi-year investigation of DOT lights that are allegedly causing unlawful take of protected birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act — an act the shearwaters are protected under.

“Fixing the lights is so easy,” said Hyrenbach.

But it’s also very costly.

The State DOT has installed shielded lights since 2007 — lights like these near Olomana Golf Course.  You can see how little light they omit compared to the other street lights.

The DOT has approximately 11,000 street lights, and only 1,800 of them are like the ones near Olomana Golf Course.

The DOT says each new light costs about $400 — money that comes out of the State Highway Fund.

“Yeah $400 could seem like a lot of money but what is the value of a bird of the species?  I would really not want to find out what would happen if the wedge-tailed shearwaters disappeared,” said Hyrenbach.

The Attorney General’s office says it’s hired a private law firm to defend the DOT, should criminal indictments be issued.

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