Published December 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Wildlife officials say planned cell phone tower is danger to birds

Citing concern for migrating birds, representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have weighed in against a recent decision by the Duluth City Council to allow for the construction of a new cell phone tower on the lower side of Highway 61 off 78th Avenue East. But animal advocates may be too late to the dance.

By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune

Citing concern for migrating birds, representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have weighed in against a recent decision by the Duluth City Council to allow for the construction of a new cell phone tower on the lower side of Highway 61 off 78th Avenue East. But animal advocates may be too late to the dance.

A letter sent last week said the service “is concerned that the construction ... represents a hazard to migratory birds in the well-documented coastal flyway along the Lake Superior shoreline.”

Fish and Wildlife normally wouldn’t get involved in a tower under 200 feet tall, said Bob Rus­sell, a biologist working for the service’s migratory bird program.

“But there can be issues even with shorter structures where there are large concentrations of birds, especially in bad weather,” he said.

AT&T plans to erect a 180-foot tower about 150 feet east of the Minne­sota High­way 61 expressway and about 1,800 feet inland from Congdon Boulevard.

Russell pointed out that more than 25,000 birds per day have been sighted flying over the nearby Lake­wood pumping station during the fall migration and noted that count doesn’t include millions of birds that fly through the area at night. Most of the birds that migrate by dark fly at heights of 500 to 3,000 feet, making a collision with the tower unlikely, but Russell said strong headwinds and poor weather can cause the birds to fly at lower altitudes that could put them on a collision course with the proposed tower.

Raptors and other birds that migrate by day should be able to avoid the tower, as long as they can see it; but Russell said foggy and low-light conditions could put these birds at risk, too.

He referred to the western shoreline of Lake Superior as probably the largest migratory flyway for birds in all the upper Midwest.

“Normally, people don’t put these towers in such egregious places,” Russell said.

Nick Rowse, another biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency would prefer to see the tower sited more than a mile away from Lake Superior to avoid the shore and a neighboring ridge that’s also a common migratory route for many hawks.

“We would recommend the tower not be constructed as proposed,” Rowse said, but he acknowledged the Fish and Wildlife Service lacks jurisdiction to block the project.

Even if Duluth city councilors wanted to revisit the issue of the proposed cell tower’s siting, they may have little ability to change course at this time.

The City Council approved a conditional use permit for the cell tower on Nov. 9, and City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said a motion to reconsider the matter would have had to come forward at the council’s next meeting, Nov. 19. The council has since met three more times, likely closing the door on the issue.

“It would be difficult at this time for the city to undo this action,” said Johnson.

AT&T spokesman Tom Hopkins could not be reached for comment before the Christmas holiday to see if the company would reconsider its plans.

In the event that the tower is built nevertheless, Fish and Wildlife requests that the city require AT&T to conduct post-construction surveys for a minimum of one year, watching for evidence of bird mortalities, particularly during the spring and fall migrations and following periods of fog or foul weather.

Russell said if significant bird deaths are documented, it could trigger an enforcement action, as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the killing of migratory birds except when specifically authorized by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Some species of birds are afforded additional protections under the Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Kelly Boedigheimer, who lives in the 7100 block of E. Superior St., has been concerned about the danger the tower could pose to migrating birds since she heard of the project and repeatedly shared her concerns with city councilors, though with little success.

“I’ve been exceedingly disappointed by their lack of response,” she said.

Only councilors Jay Fosle and Todd Fedora voted against a resolution granting a special use permit for the proposed tower.

Watching birds migrate through the area has been one of the highlights of living up the shore in Duluth for Boedigheimer, who said she looks forward to observing the fall and spring movements of birds with her daughter, a fourth grader. Boedigheimer brought her concerns to Bob Russell and the Fish and Wildlife Service and enlisted his support for stopping the structure.

“I’m doing it for my daughter because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

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