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Plan approved for Kauai utility to protect endangered birds

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LIHUE >> The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved a plan from Kauai’s electric utility to protect two species of endangered birds — Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels.

The government permit requires Kauai Island Utility Cooperative to lower power lines, obscure them with fast-growing trees or attach them to bridges to minimize bird fatalities, The Garden Island reported Tuesday.

It also protects the utility from fines and prosecution when the birds are injured or killed after flying into power lines or becoming disoriented by street lights.

“We’ve been asking KIUC to implement these commonsense protective measures for years, but the utility refused,” said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s gratifying to see they are finally being required.”

But the federal permit may not be valid until the state Department of Land and Resources approves an incidental “take” permit for those birds accidentally killed by KIUC’s power lines and lights, according to a lawyer for a conservationist legal advocacy group.

“KIUC remains in violation of both federal and state endangered species laws and is not authorized to harm any protected species until it has both permits,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin.

KIUC spokeswoman Anne Barnes said the cooperative is researching the issue while its permit with the state is pending.

Earthjustice filed a federal lawsuit in March 2010 against the utility for allegedly failing to protect rare native seabirds dying from collisions with the company’s power lines. Two months later, the federal government indicted the utility for violations of the Endangered Species Act.

The utility pleaded guilty in December to knowingly harming or killing at least 14 Newell’s shearwaters around Kealia Beach and at least 18 of the birds at its Port Allen facility. The utility paid a $40,000 fine, contributed $225,000 to protect island seabirds and agreed to apply for a permit authorizing the harming of the birds under certain conditions.

The population of Newell’s shearwaters is estimated to have plunged 75 percent over the past 15 years to about 20,000. Biologists say the species in on a trajectory to becoming extinct.

“KIUC will continue to take its responsibility for seabirds very seriously,” said utility president and CEO David Bissell. “We have spent more than $4 million in minimization and mitigation projects, working with consultants, attorneys, community groups, wildlife agencies and government regulators on bird issues.”

He said the utility is committing another $11 million over the five-year term of its habitat conservation plan.

The timeline for the utility receiving the state permit isn’t clear, Barnes said.

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