The double-crested cormorant is not on any endangered species list.
The California taxpayer is.
Caltrans has spent $1.7 million so far trying to get the birds to abandon nests on the old Bay Bridge including building $709,000 bird condos on the underside of the new span. It has worked like a charm. Instead of the roughly 250 nests on the old span that existed three years ago there are 533 today.
Citing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the California Fish and Game Code, Caltrans is preparing to spend another $30 million plus to avoid ruffling the feathers of 533 birds that in many places such as the Great Lakes region are viewed by many as nuisances.
So what could $30 million do elsewhere in California?
It might be more than enough to modify the transition from the eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99 where traffic movements during the past six years has led to eight deaths and hundreds of injuries. Perhaps if a double-crested cormorant was killed on the 120 Bypass something might be done regardless of the cost.
No one is saying the wholesale killing of birds should be allowed. But to avoid disrupting one nesting season at the price of $59,404 per bird is another example of how bureaucratic regulations spawned by the passage of broad laws are devoid of both balance and common sense.
There was a time when the double-crested cormorant appeared on the ropes thanks to DDT. Those days are long gone.
There have been federal court cases such as the one involving Brigham Oil in January 2012 that have made it clear that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act isn’t an absolute in that any disturbing of birds listed under the treaty is a criminal act subject to prosecution.
If Caltrans were to remove the 533 nests when the birds fly the coup after nesting season, the fine at $2,000 per occurrence would come to $1,066,000. That assumes, of course, there are no punitive damages sought.
Making this all the more frustrating is how the same government that makes disturbing the nesting season of double-crested cormorants such a big no-no that Californians have to fork out more than $31.7 million over 533 nests allows operators of wind farms to kill protected species such as bald eagles with impunity for 30 years.
Then there is the issue of the wording of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It says it applies to “a person, association, partnership or corporation.” It does not reference government or its agencies. Caltrans says it wanted to comply with the restrictive Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the state’s own fish and game rules noting their are penalties for not doing so. What they fail to note is the penalties are about 1/30th the cost.
Price alone should never be justification for ignoring the law whether it involves protection of birds or other criminal acts. But dealing in absolute black and white is not simply expensive but ultimately twists the intent of the original law.
Since 1918 the odds are great federal and state government projects such as replacing bridges where the birds nest have disturbed double-crested cormorants. Caltrans, to avoid the costs they project they will incur trying to work around nesting season, will not be killing, taking or capturing birds. They would be disrupting the nesting season. It is highly likely as bridge demolition nears the nests that the birds would flee. Of course, that would leave the issue of eggs that might be in nests or a bird inadvertently getting killed fleeing. But at the end of the day 533 birds would not be dead.
There are those who argue saving a bird — even one that has gained nuisance status with many — is worth the price.
Tell that to undernourished children of farmworkers, kids without textbooks, families living in fear in crime ridden urban neighborhoods where lack of funding has pared police back, or loved ones of those who have died on the 120 Bypass.
Government can’t stop all the ills and pains. Nor can it solve all problems and neither should it be on the hook for finding fixes for every injustice inflicted by inattentive or reckless drivers.
But what it can do — or more precisely the people that keep the bureaucratic blob moving — is understand it has a definite amount of resources at its disposal.
There is an opportunity cost associated with every decision.
Not disturbing the nesting season of the double-crested cormorant and saving the life of a bird or two will come at the expense of something else including possibly human lives that $30 million spent elsewhere could have saved.
Government needs to balance concerns and not respond to every situation in absolutes.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.