Experts keep eagle eye on nest near PSE&G powerline

Volunteers and government officials are keeping watchful eyes on bald eagles nesting in Morris County near construction sites of the new Susquehanna-Roseland transmission line.

So far, most report that Public Service Electric & Gas Co., which is building the 47-mile New Jersey portion of the 150-mile line, has met its obligations to minimize the impact of its work on bald eagle nests in Rockaway Township, Picatinny Arsenal and the Troy Meadows area crossing from Parsippany into East Hanover.

“This is really a pretty successful project,” said Sara Nystrom, bald eagle and golden eagle coordinator for the Northeast Region of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I think they have done everything they can to play by the rules,” said Conrad Fiore of East Hanover, who has served for about eight years as a volunteer observer of Troy Meadows for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The $1.5 billion project still generates its fair share of controversy — from residents worried about the effect of 500 kilovolt power lines going through their neighborhoods to environmentalists who say the project is endangering wildlife and their native habitats — but so far, so good, say many of the experts on the ground.

The biggest test may come with the eight-month bald-eagle nesting season that began on Jan. 1. Currently, the focus is on monitoring an established nest in Troy Meadows, where PSE&G is finishing up work on the seven new monopoles. All of the work in Troy Meadows had to be done between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, scheduled around the unusually long bald-eagle nesting season.

“The million-dollar question is whether they will come back to the nest,” said Blaine Rothhauser, a biologist who works with the nonprofit Wildlife Preserve Inc., a nonprofit land conservancy that holds the deed to most of the 3,100-acre Troy Meadows, which is designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

“They (PSE&G) certainly got in and out of there quickly, but this is a huge change in infrastructure in a wildlife area,” Rothhauser said. “Wildlife is sensitive to infrastructure change. They don’t like it.”

Bald eagles were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1995 but are still on the list of threatened wildlife. Claiming preferential status as the national bird and iconic symbol of the United States, there was a maze of regulations PSE&G had to address before gaining permits to work in several eagle-sensitive areas along the route.

In Morris County, PSE&G also had to obtain permits for operations at Tilcon Quarry in Rockaway Township and Picatinny. Additional permits were required to allow line work across the federally controlled Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and Appalachian Trail.

Nystrom said the nest near Tilcon Quarry had a successful fledgeling earlier this year, but the Picatinny nest was lost to Superstorm Sandy. The Troy Meadows nest produced three chicks this year, two in 2012, one in 2011 and two in 2010, according to Fiore’s records, establishing it as a thriving breeding ground.

The question now is whether the eagles will return to their established nest in a Troy Meadows tree (the exact location is kept confidential) after four months of helicopters buzzing through their habitat.

Choppers were needed in these areas to minimize impact to the ground, particularly in wetlands such as Troy Meadows. PSE&G spokesman George Sous explained that parts for all seven of the new monopoles that have risen there since Sept. 1 were flown in and placed by helicopter, then bolted together by workers climbing the poles from the ground.

The helicopters operated from a temporary landing pad built near the old Sharkey Landfill, about 1,500 feet from the nest. Nystrom said they determined a safe distance for the landing pad in part by analyzing the documented history of the nest.

“In this case, since they had built a nest near busy highways, we saw them as having a high tolerance,” she said. “Eagles nesting in a forest of Maine, we would expect them to be less tolerant of helicopters flying around.”

Three sizes of helicopters were used, including a crane helicopter capable of hoisting a 20,000-pound load.

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