Nesting bald eagles jeopardize South Side gun range

February 9, 2012

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There’s a new twist in the Chicago Police Department’s controversial plan to build an outdoor shooting range on the far Southeast Side of the city.

Bald eagles have nested in wetlands directly adjacent to the property slated for the project. Their presence puts into question any progress police have made on the shooting range after years of planning and backing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Mayor Richard Daley, because the range could potentially violate long-standing federal laws meant to protect the species.

Plans for the shooting range took a big step forward in early January, when the Police Department narrowly won approval from the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board to lease 33 acres of land for the project.

Conservationists have long argued that land should be saved, because it’s next to wetlands that are scheduled to be converted to public space and are used by rare and endangered birds.

Last week, I took a trip out to the isolated area with conservationist Carolyn Marsh, who’s with the Chicago Audubon Society. I wanted to find out why she thought the land was worth preserving.

That’s when we spotted an eagle tending to its nest. 

The eagle had nested among a heron rookery in Whitford Pond, a marshy area next to the property where the Police Department wants to build the outdoor gun range that will accommodate up to 40 shooters at once.

Marsh said the eagle nest should end the police department’s plans for a shooting range.

“That should stop it right there,” said Marsh.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Chicago U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t know about the eagle or the nest until I called them for comment.

Both agencies said reports of eagle nesting in the Chicago area have become more frequent in the past decade.

In response to my calls, both agencies revisited the site this week, confirming there are eagles nesting next to the property the police department wants.

Neither agency would speculate whether the nest could force the police department to change its plans for the shooting range.

"That’s a different kind of intrusion than just normal human activity and noise,” said Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.

Parenteau specializes in cases involving rare and endangered species, and served as special counsel to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 90s.

He said under the law, the police department should consider finding a new location for its range.

“At a minimum they better be talking to the Fish and Wildlife Service about a permit because they could find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit if they don’t,” said Parenteau.

Though bald eagles were removed from the U.S. Endangered and Threatened species list in 2007, they’re still protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Among other things, the latter law prohibits people from disturbing the birds, which the federal government defines as “to agitate or bother a bald or golden eagle to a degree that causes, or is likely to cause, based on the best scientific information available, 1) injury to an eagle, 2) a decrease in its productivity, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior, or 3) nest abandonment, by substantially interfering with normal breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior."

“This activity could fall into a few areas as far as the construction of the actual shooting facility and the noise that may be – would be created by the activity associated with the firing range,” said Shawn Cirton, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife’s Chicago office who’s studied the shooting range site.

Cirton said in light of the new nest, the agency has asked the city to provide more information on the proposed gun range to determine whether it violates the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

He said Fish and Wildlife also plans to return to the site to further inspect how the noise of a gun range might affect the eagles’ nest.

The proposal is currently being reviewed by Zoning board in the City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development.

The Chicago City Council still needs to approve the gun range, and it must be re-approved by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District should the city move the proposal forward.

The Police Department has said other state and local police in Northern Illinois would use the facility for training purposes, and it has been endorsed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Plans for the shooting range date back to former Mayor Richard Daley.

According to an email to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners, Daley’s administration identified the site for the police department as the only place within city limits that’s suitable for the range. The email says the site is “remote, could be made secure and was distant from residential areas.” 

It’s the ideal location for the department’s proposed $2.5 million range, because it’s surrounded on three sides by landfill space, it’s not easily accessible and it’s about a mile away from homes.

A sound study commissioned by the police department in 2010 concluded the 40-shooter gun range would have some, though little, impact on the nature areas near the complex, because the department plans to build large earth mounds around the shooting range to buffer the sound of gunshots.

The study said noise from the range wouldn’t affect neighboring residential areas.

A wildlife study conducted last summer by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources concluded the land was “highly disturbed” and couldn’t be restored without “tremendous effort.” The study also said no endangered or threatened species were seen breeding on the ground.

But neither of the studies mentioned anything about nesting bald eagles, and that could negate the any progress the police department has made to get the shooting range approved.

The Chicago Police Department would not comment after repeated attempts for an interview about how an eagle’s nest would affect its future plans for the shooting range.