WASHINGTON — Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley thinks a century-old law passed in part to keep birds from ending up on women’s hats is to blame for delaying a state bridge project.
The veteran transportation official said that was a first for his agency.
But it may be only the beginning, Ridley warned after a recent Senate hearing where he criticized a number of federal agencies and their policies.
“It seems somewhat ridiculous to me,” he said, singling out one of the swallows whose love for nesting under man-made structures is well-known. “This is not an endangered species.”
Indeed, Ridley said, the swallow in question is almost as common as a sparrow, but one of its nests on or near a road project is enough to bring work to a screeching halt.
Ridley referred to a contract to paint a bridge in Ellis County that had to be delayed last year because of a nest.
Dawn Sullivan, environmental programs division engineer for the Oklahoma Transportation Department, said that contractor had to stop the project until the birds left.
“It cost us nearly $28,000 to have him come back,” said Sullivan, whom Ridley described as his agency’s conscience.
She agreed the law is outdated, adding birds generally no longer end up on hats.
Specifically, Sullivan said the law needs to be reviewed concerning the more common birds such as the swallow, whose nesting period in Oklahoma runs from April through August.
“That’s kind of our prime construction season,” Ridley said.
Because of ODOT’s experience last year with that one bridge project that had to be delayed, Ridley said his agency now has to take that into account, even on major projects.
“Let me give you a couple of real-life examples,” he said, pointing to two bridges on Interstate 40, west of Oklahoma City. “Both bridges are structurally deficient, as well as functionally obsolete.”
In addition, Ridley said, the bridges are narrower than current interstate standards and have a history of accidents.
ODOT, he said, has been working toward replacing them both for about 16 months.
“I don’t know, but I can rest assured there are … swallows under that bridge,” he said, adding that the project could be delayed by several months if its timing coincides with their nesting period.
“To me that is unacceptable. We have two bridges we know have serious problems, big-time serious problems that we need to replace.”
Ridley said he wants Congress to amend the law on migratory birds to give departments of transportation across the nation relief, especially on projects that are limited to replacing or repairing what is already part of their states’ systems.
According to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which enforces the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the law has no impact on Oklahoma’s road projects unless birds are killed during a project.
“Our standard practice is to advise road crews to conduct habitat destruction activities before or after the bird breeding season,” the statement read.
“Permits may be issued in situations where the ... relocation of birds is absolutely necessary to protect human health or safety.”
Jeff Haskins, chief of the migratory bird office for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southwest region, clarified the bird in question is the cliff swallow, known for nesting under bridges, not the barn swallow.
Conceding it may be inconvenient, Haskins said his agency encourages states to plan ahead on road projects and remove nests before the swallows arrive. An empty nest can be removed without a permit, he said.
Asked whether his agency has stepped up its enforcement of the law and specifically the Ellis County project, Haskins denied any change in enforcement has occurred but said he could not comment on ODOT’s experience last year.