Kauai County yesterday acknowledged in U.S. District Court that it is guilty of violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act by killing Newell’s shearwater birds through its lighting policies at county facilities over the last five years.
The Justice Department documented at least 18 bird deaths that resulted from the county’s actions — including the lighting of football stadiums for night games — the county said yesterday afternoon. Environmentalists say the bright lights can disorient young shearwaters, causing them to crash.
The taking, killing or possession of migratory birds such as Newell’s shearwaters is illegal.
Under a plea agreement with the Department of Justice, Kauai County paid a $15,000 fine and will undertake a series of corrective measures during a 30-month probation period including:
» Conducting an audit of all county facilities and creating plans to minimize harm to seabirds during the fledgling season.
» Maintaining a record of dead, injured or sick birds that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
» Notifying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of any deaths, injuries or sickness within 24 hours.
» Donating $180,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation toward its efforts to increase the population of Newell’s shearwaters on Kauai, and $30,000 to the Kauai Humane Society for its Save Our Shearwater program.
» Establishing and funding an escrow account this fall to cover any incidents that result in death or serious injury to the birds.
A spokesman for Earthjustice, an environmental organization that is participating in lawsuits filed against other Kauai entities over the lighting issue, applauded the county’s decision to plead guilty.
"It sounds like the county is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the number of birds that are harmed," said David Henkin, an Earthjustice staff attorney.
While not a total solution to protecting the birds, the action is a good step and "should serve as a model to other public and private entities on Kauai" that have been sued by environmental groups over their lighting policies, including the St. Regis Princeville Resort and the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, Henkin said.
He noted that because of its decision to admit responsibility, the county will now be able to work toward a compromise that would clear the way for night football at its stadiums. Under the agreement, the county can work to re-establish night games "on certain days and under certain conditions."
The Kauai Interscholastic Federation announced during the summer that it would hold games on Saturday afternoons instead of Friday nights because of concerns that Vidinha Stadium’s bright lights were confusing newborn Newell’s shearwaters, which rely on moonlight to travel from their nests out to sea.
Wildlife experts say the hazards caused by man-made lighting on Kauai have contributed to a 60 percent decline in the population of the birds, also known as Hawaiian shearwaters, or a’o.
Without the plea agreement, the count would have faced a maximum fine of $450,000 for violations of the Environmental Species Act, and $270,000 for violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.