New Jersey Environmental Agency Accuses Itself of Harming Bird Habitats

A New Jersey state agency is accusing itself of violating its own regulations, saying it destroyed land that is home to rare owls and hawks while creating habitat for another type of bird.

At issue in the unusual bureaucratic conflict is the clearing of about 20 acres of swampy forest in a state-owned wildlife preserve in the southern part of the state as part of a project to improve conditions for the American woodcock, a common, plump shorebird prized by hunters.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection paid private contractors $200,000 for the job, which involved the removal of trees and the bulldozing of stumps, according to public documents obtained by the nonprofit New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

But clearing the forest, in the Glassboro Wildlife Management Area in Clayton, destroyed habitat for the barred owl, which is threatened in New Jersey, and the red-shouldered hawk, which is endangered, according to a notice of violation issued to one arm of the environmental agency by another on April 6.

“Its just depressing, really,” Joe Arsenault, a plant ecologist and environmental consultant who lives nearby and has studied the area for 25 years, said of the project’s outcome. “The site had exquisite, mature growth. It had ancient trees. Today it’s like driving through a parking lot.”

Barred owls rely on the undergrowth of dense woods for roosting during daytime, and on large tree cavities for their nests, according to the University of Michigan. Red-shouldered hawks prefer to build nests in the high branches of hardwood trees, in areas surrounded by dead trees that they can perch in to scan the wet forest floor for food.

That was not the full extent of the damage, Mr. Arsenault added. Bulldozers and tree pickers also destroyed vernal pools, which provide protected habitat to several salamander species, he said.

The forest clearing ended on March 10, after most of the 20 acres had been stripped, Mr. Arsenault said. The rest of the Glassboro wildlife area’s 2,300 acres of protected land were undisturbed.

The clearing was approved by the environmental agency’s Fish and Wildlife division, which is responsible for increasing fishing and hunting opportunities in the state. The agency’s Bureau of Coastal and Land Use Compliance and Enforcement, known internally by the acronym CLUE, issued the violation.

“I could have some fun with that, but I think I’ll bite my tongue,” said Tom Gilbert, a leader of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

The forest clearing was approved by one branch of the Department of Environmental Protection, and another branch issued the violation.Credit…Rob Ferber/New Jersey Conservation Foundation

The violation notice gave the Fish and Wildlife division 30 days to submit plans for a “full restoration” of the land.

Larry Hajna, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, responded to an inquiry with an emailed statement summarizing the violation notice, but did not return a call seeking comment.

The forest will slowly regrow, Mr. Arsenault said, adding that his surveys of the land had also uncovered evidence of early settlement by Native American tribes that could date to the earliest humans to settle in New Jersey. With the land upturned, the site’s archaeological record is lost forever.

“It’s a gut punch,” he said. “It is the epitome of poor decisions and poorly spent money.”

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