Save Our Swallows volunteers barred from stables building in Hadley

  • Zadie Silver, 7, of Florence hands out informational flyers while her aunt, ornithologist Mara Silver, right, of Shelburne Falls, speaks to the media about a proposed action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a demonstration near its Northeast Regional Office on Westgate Center Drive in Hadley on Saturday, March 30, 2019.  FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gwen Blodgett, left, of Williamsburg and Lissa Ganter of Amherst were among a dozen people demonstrating against a proposed action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near its Northeast Regional Office on Westgate Center Drive in Hadley on Saturday, March 30, 2019.  FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 6/20/2019 10:59:11 AM

HADLEY — Volunteers who spent recent years collecting data on barn swallows at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge are no longer allowed into buildings at the site.

While the volunteers are attempting to legally challenge the decision — including by having a letter sent to officials from Olympia Bowker, a lawyer with McGregor & Legere Attorneys at Law, PC in Boston, and making direct written appeals to Wendi Weber, the regional director for the Northeast Regional Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — the project leader who oversees the site said there is nothing nefarious about the decision.

Andrew C. French said Wednesday that safety of access to a former stables building where more than 30 pairs of barn swallows nested in 2018, as well an agreement with the Massachusetts Audubon Society for a pilot study, mean that those who have volunteered in the past, including members of Save Our Swallows, are no longer needed.

“We’re not allowing any volunteers in the stables or the hot walker room,” French said. “We don’t want to have unnecessary variables of people in there.”

The decision means that Nancy Goodman of Hadley, who coordinated and spent $5,000 to sponsor a college student’s research on barn swallows at the site in 2017 and 2018, is among those not welcome to enter the two buildings.

The lawyer’s letter centers on whether Goodman was denied access because she hadn’t provided data from last year’s study and thus violated a volunteer services agreement. Bowker writes that “denial of access to the stables and the hot walker room is arbitrary and capricious.” French, though, said areas around the buildings are closed, in part because of ongoing work to the riding arena building.

The issue comes as a decision is still being awaited on an environmental assessment that includes three alternatives for the future of the site, with the preferred alternative removing the 22,500-square-foot stables building, reduced in size over the next two nesting seasons before being demolished in late 2020. Other alternatives are to allow the stables to deteriorate and eventually collapse in place, or to remove the stables after the 2019 nesting season. The federal agency is not considering repairing the building or installing a new roof.

Federal officials have said this course of action is necessary because the building is deteriorating, and there is a federal government directive to reduce the amount of real property on national wildlife refuge lands by 5 percent by the end of 2020.

Mara Silver, a member of Save Our Swallows and an expert on barn swallows, said that while she trusts Audubon to handle the study, she believes that some of the existing nests may have been moved from the stables to the hot walker room.

And demolishing the stables remains a bad idea, she said. “Our stand remains that the right decision is to not take down the building,” Silver said. 

The group still hopes for a favorable environmental assessment that will reject these plans.

Though results of the Audubon study won’t be released until after the nesting season, French said preliminary information finds that there are more nesting pairs in the stables, and the hot walker room set up is working.

“We’re very pleased with what we’ve seen in the hot walker room with the experimental platforms,” French said.

French said the site remains open to visitors from sunrise to sunset year round, with the approach to the parking lot altered this year to give people a better view of the buildings and the presence of the barn swallows.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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