HADLEY — A former horse stable at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge that has become a prominent nesting site for barn swallows will be reduced in size over the next two nesting seasons before being demolished in late 2020.
An environmental assessment released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that the prospective action at the former BriMar Stables on Moody Bridge Road, known as Alternative A, would close the western side of the 22,500-square foot building before this year’s nesting season in the spring, with the middle section shut prior to the 2020 nesting season.
Andrew French, project leader for the refuge, said last week that this phased closure and delayed demolition will ensure the colony of barn swallows has the opportunity to find suitable nesting sites elsewhere on the refuge or on surrounding public and private lands.
“In effect, this will allow the colony to transition over time,” French said.
French said he is already working to make the hot walker room, once used for equestrian activities, the new space for the barn swallows, putting in 264 potential contact points where swallows can nest and mimicking the stables environment in terms of temperature, light intensity and humidity. “We’re trying to recruit first-time nesters,” French said
While the public can offer comments on the environmental assessment through April 19, with a public information session to be held on April 9 at 6 p.m. at the Northeast Regional Office at 300 Westgate Center Drive in Hadley, the plans are already coming under fire.
The Save Our Swallows group, which has advocated for preserving the barn, issued a statement through its communication specialist, Lisa Capone, calling the environmental assessment “hugely disappointing”
“It has all the hallmarks of an after-the-fact justification for a decision the agency was already predisposed to make: demolishing the stables building and, with it, the legacy nesting site for Massachusetts’ largest colony of barn swallows.”
Though the Hadley colony, with more than 30 nesting pairs, is a large one, barn swallow populations have declined in New England by about 50 percent the since the 1960s, according to Save Our Swallows.
But French said there are legitimate reasons for pursuing demolition, noting that in 2015 the Office of Management and Budget asked all regions of the wildlife service to reduce the footprint of buildings by 5 percent by the end of 2020. For Region 5, that would mean scaling back real property by 106,841 square feet. The stables building is completely excess to the needs in Region 5, French said, and if maintained would mean an inability to acquire new land and buildings.
“Keeping a building of that size directly affects our ability to have infrastructure within 13 states … and doesn’t help us do what we need to do for protecting wildlife refuges,” French said.
The building has deteriorated to a point that it has become a safety and security concern that could adversely impact other refuge structures, equipment, and refuge visitors and staff.
French said the decision is also about not putting all eggs in one basket, so to speak, and to test procedures and structures for having barn swallows use other barns and structures near grasslands.
“We want to do what’s best for barn swallows, especially at the population level,” French said.
Save Our Swallows contends that the wildlife service continues to violate the National Environmental Policy Act through its prior gutting and closing off access to the stables, and by pushing an option that closes one-third of the barn before the environmental assessment is complete.
“I can assure you I have not violated the National Environmental Policy Act,” French said, noting that the work done so far has opened up more of the ground floor and provided better access for the birds.
The environmental assessment includes two alternatives, one that will allow the stable to deteriorate and eventually collapse in place, the other to remove the stable after the 2019 nesting season.
The federal agency is not considering repairing the building or installing a new roof.
In addition to the barn, the site includes the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail from which people can see a variety of birds. French said the hope is to protect this viewshed, too.
“We’re looking at barn swallows, but we’re also looking at a broader suite of aerial insectivores, from birds to bats,” French said
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com.