The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has accused itself of harming the habitat of endangered and threatened birds it was supposed to protect.
The work was designed to create habitat for one species of bird, but actually ended up destroying habitat for two others.
The department admitted it sent a violation notice and threatened fines to its own Fish and Wildlife Department for unauthorized work in February and March at the Glassboro Wildlife Management Area in Clayton, Gloucester County.
It was unclear how any penalties might work when the DEP is both the prosecutor and the defendant. It was also not immediately clear whether any money could actually change hands. The department did not respond to questions about potential penalties.
The work involved clearing vegetation and soil disturbance on nearly 3 acres of what the state calls “freshwater wetlands of exceptional resource value.” Before the work was completed, this land was considered suitable habitat for the Barn Owl, which is listed as an endangered species, and the Red-shouldered Hawk, which is listed as an endangered species.
The project also cleared and disturbed an additional 12 hectares of land near wetlands known as transition areas, which are also protected.
The DEP on Friday declined to discuss without authorization how the deal came about.
On its website, the department wrote on Feb. 1 that the work was aimed at creating 21 acres of habitat for the American sandpiper, 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 the process, the state destroyed mature oak and pine forests in and near wetlands, and filled in some wetlands, four conservation groups said in a letter to the ministry in early March complaining about the work. The agency issued the notification about the violation on April 6.
“Wetlands and flora that were previously undisturbed have been destroyed, and mature forest that was already a habitat for numerous rare plant and bird species has been cut down,” the groups wrote. “All the trees were cut down and all the stumps were bulldozed.”
Tom Gilbert, leader of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said, “This should never have happened. They must also take steps to improve their clearly inadequate internal review process and meaningfully engage the public.”
Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Conservation Alliance, praised the state for admitting its mistake, but said the DEP should provide a list of ongoing projects on its website for public review.
“Thanks to the public, we were able to stop further destruction of this landscape,” she said.
Agency spokesman Larry Hajna said the Fish and Wildlife Department’s Bureau 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 the removal of wood chips placed there.
By the end of April, DEP intends to issue a sentencing notice.
Fish and Wildlife will propose additional measures that are beneficial to the environment, which will be subject to a public comment period, Hajna said.
Follow Wayne Parry on Twitter at twitter.com/WayneParryAC