HADLEY — The former horse stables that have become a habitat for barn swallows at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Widlife Refuge has gotten the attention of the region’s representatives in Washington, D.C.
Staff from U.S. Congressman James McGovern’s office and from both U.S. senators from Massachusetts this week coordinated a meeting to bring local advocates for barn swallows and federal wildlife officials in charge of the refuge together before any decisions are made about the future of the deteriorating barn.
On Wednesday, members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others who have argued for preserving the stables building in its entirety for the birds met at McGovern’s Northampton office.
The meeting was described as productive and useful and comes amid interior demolition work on the barn aimed at stabilizing and protecting other structures on the site.
Mara Silver, an ornithologist in Shelburne Falls who specializes in studying barn swallows, said she appreciated being part of the hour-long meeting. “I think we’re on a better path, possibly,” Silver said.
Silver said it is not conclusive that the stables building will remain standing long term, but feels better about that possibility. “It did seem a few more options opened up,” she said.
Andrew French, project leader for the Conte Refuge, said the meeting helped him connect with concerned residents and explaining that barn swallows are important to the refuge, as are other birds that dwell on the site.
French said he remains committed to a public process that will determine the fate of the building
“We want the same things,” French said. “The way to achieve that may be a little different as it relates to barn swallows; we have a broader interest in aerial insectivores.”
He said the challenge is to be responsive to directives from the federal government, one that has been in place during both the Obama and Trump administrations, to reduce the amount of real property inventory and operate within specific budgetary constraints.
French said a plan called “alternative E” is being considered for the environmental assessment. The plan would remove and salvage materials from half the structure to construct an alternate corridor, which would simulate the existing two corridors that provide locations for 90 percent of the barn swallows’ nesting sites in the building, and help other aerial insectivores, such as tree swallows, cliff swallows, purple martins, chimney swifts and bats. The other half of the stables building would be removed after the next nesting season in 2019.
Silver said she has been alarmed at how much work is often taking place, noting a significant quantity of boards have been removed already. French said this is a similar project to what began last year, with removing the walls that separate the stables, and which had no appreciable impact on the swallow population.
During the comment period, French said there will be an open house to show the public what has happened and dispel rumors that the building is being demolished. He said workers have not touched any of the nests and that, aside from removing boards, the efforts have focused on untangling cable wires and protecting the other buildings on site.
The draft environmental assessment and notice of the date, time and location of the next public meeting will be posted online. French also encouraged people to sign up to receive email notifications.
Silver said she and others aren’t giving up.
“We are still fighting for the birds that are there and that will be back in April,” Silver said.
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.