A Ponderosa pine tree in Potter Valley containing a decades-old bald eagles’ nest has been spared for another year, amid calls for tribal consultations and a Congressman’s fury that a federal permit was granted without engaging local tribes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that it granted PG&E a permit to remove the tree on January 5, but that as of January 13, that permit is invalid, “and they are not presently authorized to remove the nest.”
The nest tree is situated just a few yards from a PG&E power line which the utility deactivated over the summer, declaring that the nest and tree constituted a fire hazard. The tree was also slated for removal this time last year, but PG&E crews retreated in the face of community activism and the early return of the eagles to their historical breeding site. Breeding season officially starts on January 15, after which it is typically out of bounds to destroy a nest. However, this year’s permit originally gave PG&E until February 1 to cut down the tree, “Should inclement weather or other unforeseen circumstances prevent nest removal,” after the usual deadline of January 15.
We documented one of the eagles landing on the tree near the nest on January 9. On January 11, after a brief confrontation between activists and a PG&E tree-cutting crew, Michael Hunter, the Chairman of the nearby Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, wrote to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, requesting government-to-government consultation with the agency. “We understand that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already issued the permit prior to initiating consultation and that there was a brief opportunity for “public comment” under the National Environmental Policy Act,” he wrote. However, “The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians is a sovereign nation with a government-to government relationship with the United States and that relationship requires more substantial consultation than is awarded to “the public” under the National Environmental Policy Act. We also believe that agency duties and obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act are implicated and unfulfilled as well.”
Congressman Jared Huffman agreed, saying he finds it “unacceptable” if the agency granted the permit without tribal consultation, and that he “share(s) the concern that a federal agency would not know better.” He blasted the agency, revealing that he has “had deep concerns about Fish and Wildlife’s ability to fulfill its mission with integrity for a number of years…If this was a permit U.S. Fish and Wildlife had to grant; if the law, facts and science compelled them,” he insisted; “They should have included tribal consultation. But they dropped the ball.” He said he wrote a letter to USFWS on January 16, expressing his concerns.
On January 17, a USFWS spokesperson wrote in an email that, “The permit stated PG&E could ‘remove one inactive bald eagle nest.’ The Service’s eagle regulations define an in-use nest as an eagle nest with one or more eggs, dependent young, or adult eagles on the nest in the past 10 days during the breeding season. The bald eagle pair is currently visiting and refurbishing the nest and the breeding season has begun. As such, the nest meets the definition of an ‘in-use’ and active nest, thus the permit is no longer valid.”
Peter Galvin, with the Center for Biological Diversity, is hoping for a long-term solution. The bald eagle breeding season ends in August, at which time PG&E could apply for another permit to take down the tree, arguing that it is threatening the line again. Currently, PG&E is providing generators and diesel fuel to residents on the property, leading to damage on the steep, unpaved driveway. Galvin said he is working hard to convince PG&E to underground the few hundred feet of line from the road to the homes on the property, and has offered his organization’s help in fundraising to help pay for the effort.
Huffman said he would try to help too, though he can’t guarantee that there is a federal funding source for the project. But in his view, “PG&E ought to be able to solve this. It’s not an overwhelmingly complex challenge.”