Suit Challenges Navy Bombing of Migratory Birds

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2001 (ENS) - The Center for Biological Diversity, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, has filed suit to stop the U.S. Navy from continuing to use the Pacific island of Farallon de Medinilla for live fire training. The suit charges the military with violating the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


There are just two breeding colonies of the great frigatebird in the Mariana island chain, one of which is on Farallon de Medinilla (Bird photos courtesy Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund)
The island is an important nesting site for more than a dozen species of migratory birds. The suit challenging the Navy's bombing exercises was filed last month in federal court in the District of Columbia.

"The continued bombing and destruction of rare and migratory birds on Farallon de Medinilla is an ecological travesty and is an embarrassment to our nation," said Peter Galvin, Conservation Biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. "We urge the court to uphold the law and halt the bombing."

Located 45 nautical miles north of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the 200 acre island is long and narrow with dramatic ocean cliffs. Uninhabited by humans, Farallon de Medinilla hosts breeding colonies of great frigatebirds; masked, red-footed, and brown boobys; red- and white-tailed tropicbirds; white and sooty terns; brown and black noddys; and other species of migratory seabirds.


U.S. Marines storm ashore in a military joint exercise. The U.S. military considers Farallon de Medinilla essential to live fire training exercises (Photo courtesy LCPL Penny Surdukan, U.S. Marine Corps)
Nesting occurs on Farallon de Medinilla all year around. Farallon de Medinilla has one of the two small breeding colonies of the great frigatebird in the Mariana chain. It is the largest known nesting site for masked boobies in the Mariana and Caroline Islands.

The nonmigratory Micronesian megapode and the Mariana fruit bat, both listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, also inhabit the island.

Since 1976, the Navy, together with other branches of the U.S. military, has used Farallon de Medinilla and a three mile buffer around the island for target practice throughout the year. Exercises include air to surface gunnery with missiles and rockets; bombing runs with 500, 750 and 2000 pound bombs, precision guided munitions and mines.

Other exercises include target practice with deck mounted guns, and firing grenades, machine guns and shoulder launched missiles at the island from inflatable vessels.

masked booby

Farallon de Medinilla hosts the largest known nesting site for masked boobies in the Mariana and Caroline Islands
The Navy says that procedures are in place to help limit the impact of the training exercises on the island. But not surprisingly, birds are sometimes killed during these exercises.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), one of the oldest conservation statutes in existence, since 1918 has prohibited harm to migratory birds without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The USFWS refused to issue such a permit to the Navy in 1996.

However, the Navy has continued to bomb Farallon de Medinilla, claiming that the MBTA does not apply to federal agencies. The Center for Biological Diversity is asking the court to declare that the statute does indeed apply, and to issue an injunction halting all live fire exercises at Farallon de Medinilla unless and until the Navy complies fully with the MBTA.

sooty tern

Sooty terns soar over Farallon de Medinilla
The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where last summer, a three judge panel ruled that another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cannot conduct goose roundups or any other type of migratory bird killing program without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The case, brought by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) against the Agriculture Department, could serve as a precedent indicating that federal agencies are subject to the permitting requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

"This is a major victory for the geese as well as other species of protected birds," said Nancy Perry, HSUS director of government affairs, when the court's decision was announced in July 2000. "The court's decision ensures that migratory birds throughout the country have some measure of protection, that federal agencies will not be able to slaughter birds in violation of international and domestic laws."

red-footed booby

A red-footed booby silhouetted against a bright island sky
A Navy spokesperson said it is Navy policy not to comment on active lawsuits, but noted that there will be an investigation into the charges specified in the suit. The Navy has participated in the past in two environmental impact studies, in 1975 and 1999, regarding military activities on the island.

"Eighty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called the preservation of migratory birds a 'national interest of very nearly the first magnitude'," Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said. "Congress enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect that national interest, and we expect all federal agencies, including the Navy, to comply with it."