By Christopher anderson
WASHINGTON – Opponents of the National Harbor project said an eagle’s nest was knocked from a tree at the site earlier this month, only days before the developer was to be sentenced for knocking down the nest of the same pair of eagles two years ago.
The Sierra Club and other opponents of the Prince George’s County project accused the Virginia-based Peterson Cos. of cutting down trees around the nest, leaving it exposed to the wind. Within days, the nest and the supporting tree limb were found on the ground, according to a Sierra Club statement.
But a lawyer for the developer said that work at the site was in compliance with all government permits and denied that his client did anything to knock the eagles’ nest down.
“If the question is, ‘Did the Peterson Company knock down the nest?’ the answer is ‘no,'” said attorney Andre Gingles.
And federal and state officials said the latest incident is not likely to produce more charges because they had issued an “incidental take” permit, which allows a developer to do work that could destroy an individual endangered or threatened animal or its habitat.
The National Harbor permit was the first incidental take permit issued for a bald eagle in Maryland, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife experts.
A federal incidental take permit was issued in March 1999, but Maryland did not approve it until September 2002, when neighbors began complaining about tree-cutting on the site. The state made the permit retroactive to January 2002.
“We should have acted on it much sooner than we did,” said John Surrick, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman. In an October letter to the Sierra Club, DNR officials blamed the delay on an internal review of the federal permit opinion and leadership changes within the state agency.
The Sierra Club said they believe Peterson was acting without a proper permit when it began cutting down trees in September.
“It’s a matter of bad faith. They didn’t have permission to go forward with taking down the eagles’ nest’s habitat,” said Bonnie Bick, a Maryland Sierra Club activist.
Developer Milton Peterson has pleaded guilty to charges involving the destruction of a nest in 1999 as the result of tree removal. He was to be sentenced in U.S. District Court on Monday, but court officials said that hearing has been postponed.
Sierra Club activists hope the delay in Peterson’s sentencing hearing will give the court a chance to consider the most recent actions.
Federal and state wildlife officials believe the nesting pair of eagles is still alive and state officials believe the birds have already established a new nest nearby.
“The pair of eagles that had nested in that area . . . has been very flexible in dealing with human intrusion,” said John Wolflin, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay field office. “In fact they’ve been to three different nesting sites.”
Bick conceded that this particular pair has adapted well, but that they still need protection.
“They’re productive eagles and persistent eagles and they wanted to stay in this area because of the fish habitat,” she said. “At this time, when we’re all so patriotic, we’re allowing the destruction of our national symbol within sight of the Washington Monument.”