A tern chick at Mille Lacs Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota (Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)
There are few things as aggravating as getting stuck in a traffic jam. But for some drivers crossing a busy bridge from the U.S. to Canada there’s aggravation on top of aggravation. Joyce Kryszak reports that’s because a plan to build an additional bridge is being blocked by concern for a bird and a little fish that it eats:
There are few things as aggravating as getting stuck in a traffic jam. But for some drivers crossing a busy bridge from the U.S. to Canada there’s aggravation on top of aggravation. Joyce Kryszak reports that’s because a plan to build an additional bridge is being blocked by concern for a bird and a little fish that it eats.
Every year, millions of people cross the mighty Niagara River on the Peace Bridge that connects Buffalo, New York to Canada. And many of them sit for hours in a traffic jam. The border crossing and passport checks slow things down. But there are just not enough lanes for all the traffic.
Ice delivery man Tim Holliday is one of those who is fed up with hours and hours of bridge delays.
“Like, I gotta go to the duty-free here, and when I’m coming out of here I have to go through customs and they always ask, what were you doing in Canada?” said Holliday. “I’m just sick of the hassles, you know?”
Transportation officials say a new bridge is needed. The traffic problems will only get worse. Because of increased trade, about eleven million additional travelers are expected to be using the Peace Bridge over the next decade.
And that’s a headache for Ron Rienas. He manages the busy international bridge crossing. He says building a new bridge would help with the traffic delays and help with national security.
“This is a border improvement project designed to address redundancy issues, security issues, traffic flow, all of those things, maintenance issues…all of those are impacted by not being able to proceed with the project,” said Rienas.
A second bridge has been designed. It’s a cable-stayed bridge with towers as high as the Washington monument.
Brian Higgins is Congressman for the area. He’s pushing for federal approval of the impressive cable design. He says the region needs an iconic symbol of progress.
“We are in the eleventh hour of a project that’s been going on for fifteen years. We need additional capacity at the Peace Bridge to promote the efficient, predictable flow of commerce between the United States and Canada – we need an iconic bridge, a signature bridge,” said Higgins.
But that signature bridge is exactly the kind of design that is dangerous to many birds.
And the Niagara River is a virtual highway for nearly three hundred kinds of birds. The cables can be invisible to the birds and they can fly into them and die.
Among those birds is the Common Tern. It’s an endgangered species.
Terry Yonker knows these and other birds better than most.
“We probably documented somewhere in the range of half a million birds, and there’s a common tern right there.”
Yonker is a scientist and a former Ornithological Society president. He wrote an environmental study that recommended against the bridge’s cable design because it could kill hundreds of different kinds of birds, including the endangered tern.
Yonker says even if it avoided hitting the cables by flying over the bridge, the tern would be stressed by such a tall bridge design. That’s because it has to make eight trips over the bridge each day to feed its young. But he says it probably wouldn’t make that many trips if the new bridge is any higher than the Peace Bridge.
“You raise that structure and they’ll have to spend a lot of energy doing that. They’ll maybe make five or six trips a day and that means one or two chicks are going to get less food out there,” said Yonker.
The other concern is a food source for the tern.
Fishery experts say the enormous piers would change water currents, eventually killing off the Emerald Shiner. That’s the tiny fish the endangered bird feeds on.
So a new design is being recommended: A lower bridge with smaller piers to protect the tern and the emerald shiner.
Federal and state agencies are working to find a way to mitigate the threat to the birds and fish by altering the plans for the new bridge. But environmental experts say you can’t mitigate extinction.
Environmentalists and some biologists say the common tern is more than an endangered bird. They say it’s a warning, about what happens when sound science is ignored for the sake of progress.
But, try explaining that to the people stuck in traffic for hours because a second bridge is being blocked to save a small bird and a little fish.