Barn swallow defenders press case to save federal agency’s barn

HADLEY — Barn swallows may have already made their migratory trip to Central and South America for the winter, but members of a group trying to save their Hadley habitat from being razed weathered the cold Saturday to bring attention to the issue.

With signs and flyers in hand, about 40 members of the grassroots organization Save Our Swallows stood at a busy Route 9 intersection near the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s northeast regional office in Hadley. The group wants public attention focused on the government’s possible plan to eventually demolish a large, abandoned horse stable used by the birds for nesting by the end of next year. The barn, owned by the agency, is in a part of the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley.

“We’re trying to save the swallows legally and by a show of support from the community,” said Mara Silver, co-organizer with Save Our Swallows. 

In an environmental assessment earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to demolish the 22,500-square-foot BriMar Stable after closing it in stages following to a federal mandate to reduce the number of government-owned buildings by 2020, arguing the barn was extraneous to what the agency needed to operate. The agency said in the assessment that the building had deteriorated and is a safety concern. 

In a statement, the agency said no final decision had been made on the future of the building and that is has evaluated all public comments.

Barn swallows are declining in the northeastern United States. In 2018, the agency’s horse stable gave shelter to 37 pairs of the bird, an “unusually large” and “thriving” colony, according to Silver.

Save Our Swallows had contractors check the building, found it structurally sound other needing a new roof, Silver said, adding that the group has contractors willing to replace the roof and enough money to cover the expense. But Silver said the agency has gutted the inside of the stable, possibly compromising its structure.

The group argues the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the National Environmental Policy Act by gutting the building and closing it to the swallows, a claim the service has previously denied.

Save Our Swallows has met with attorneys who have looked into the mandate to reduce federal government building footprints, Silver said. The group’s attorneys found that the building could possibly be given a Public Benefit Conveyance, Silver said, which could count the building toward the service’s footprint while also being designated as a migratory bird habitat — a potential legal workaround that could save the stable from being demolished.

“They’ve kind of discounted that suggestion,” Silver said of the service’s response to that option.

In the frigid cold Saturday, demonstrators held signs such as one that read “Save The Barn At Fort River Refuge,” adorned with photos and drawings of the swallows.

One member of the group, Devin Straley, studied ecology and natural history at Sterling College in Vermont and counted the number of birds at the barn over the past few summers. Straley said other nesting habitats typically have eight pairs of the bird on average. Volunteers are no longer allowed to visit the stables.

“It’s not like you can just tear this barn down and the barn swallows will just go elsewhere,” Straley said. “They’re very picky about what habitat they have.”

Straley said it’s unknown why the number of birds are declining overall, but because the barn is home to so many, the space is a prime opportunity for scientists to research the bird’s habits. 

“Who knows if other strategies to try to bring them back after it’s torn down will work, because they’re so picky,” he said. 

Staff Writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report. Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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