For 15 years, two state-protected bird species have called Atlantic City International Airport home: the endangered upland sandpiper and the threatened grasshopper sparrow.
There are only five pairs of the former in the state, and few spots in South Jersey where they can be reintroduced.
But soon, they may be looking for another place to live. The South Jersey Transportation Authority wants to mow the tall 290-acre grassland area that’s been maintained for them inside the airport’s boundaries and establish a new conservation site for the birds elsewhere in the Pinelands.
The agency, which owns the property in Egg Harbor Township, is requesting an amendment to an agreement it has had with the state Pinelands Commission since 2004. The deal allowed the SJTA to develop parts of the airport within the Pinelands in exchange for creating grassland habitat.
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A long-stalled plan to develop Blue Heron Pines East into a community of…
The reason for the sudden change? Safety concerns, the SJTA contends.
Birds can collide with planes in flight and during takeoff and pose a threat to aircraft and animal safety, said Sarah Brammell, a Federal Aviation Administration-qualified airport wildlife biologist speaking on behalf of the SJTA at a Pinelands Commission public hearing Tuesday.
A report prepared by environmental consultant Environmental Resource Solutions Inc. found the number of strike reports involving upland sandpiper and grasshopper sparrows increased after the grassland area was established.
No damage was reported.
“When these things happen, they can be rare, but they can be catastrophic,” Brammell told the commission, adding the tall grass attracts insects and other raptor species.
Overall though, there was a decrease in wildlife strikes at the airport from 2011 to 2017, according to the report.
Environmental groups are concerned that mowing the grass would attract larger birds, like Canada geese. Clashes between large birds and aircraft poses a greater risk to safety, they say.
Around the U.S., wildlife managers use airport fields as habitat for small, threatened or endangered birds, said Eric Stiles, president and CEO of New Jersey Audubon.
“You have much smaller birds, so the number of Canada geese goes down. ... The risk factor for human safety goes down. The conservation value goes up. It’s a win for everyone,” he said.
There also are few spots in the state where upland sandpipers and grasshopper sparrows can thrive. They live in tall grasslands and large hayfields, which mostly exist in South Jersey and around airports in less development parts of the state.
The Pinelands Commission is considering three different alternatives to the 2004 agreement, which comes at the same time political leaders look to have Port Authority looks to take over the airport.
The current draft of the amendment would require the SJTA to put $500,000 into an escrow account to cover the acquisition and preservation of 295 acres of suitable vacant land in the Pinelands, estimated to cost about $3 million. A 62-acre Grassland Conservation and Management Area would be created for the birds.
Only five pairs of upland sandpipers are known to exist in New Jersey, said Sharon Petzinger, senior zoologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. She said if the current habitat at the airport were mowed and another one created, the migratory birds would likely flock to the new location.
But Rhyan Grech, policy advocate for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the proposed payment plan is not justified.
“Making cash payments the price for destroying protected species habitats is a prescription for losing critical habitat anywhere,” Grech said. “And perhaps ultimately everywhere.”
SJTA General Counsel Lauren Staiger said there are no plans at the moment to develop the grassland if it is mowed.
“As of right now, I don’t believe (the area will be developed),” Staiger said. “The revisions that are made to the (memorandum of agreement), as far as I understand, won’t have development in that area at this point in time.”
The Pinelands Commission will announce its decision in April.