Judge Bars Navy Bombing on Farallon de Medinilla

WASHINGTON, DC, May 1, 2002 (ENS) - A federal judge has issued an injunction halting all military activities at Farallon de Medinilla that would harm or kill migratory birds.


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)
Judge Emmet Sullivan, district judge for the District of Columbia, issued the order in a case brought by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), represented by Earthjustice. CBD had sued the Navy for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) at the island, and on March 13, Judge Sullivan declared that the Navy's use of Farallon de Medinilla violates the law.

The Navy had nevertheless continued to use the island for live fire exercises using bombs, air to ground missiles and other munitions, while acknowledging that the exercises were killing migratory birds.

Sullivan's ruling should put a halt to the training exercises, though the Defense Department is now seeking other avenues, including new legislation, to gain exemptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other environmental laws.

"The Navy is not above the law," said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. "This case stands as an important reaffirmation of the separation of powers that is a cornerstone of our democracy."


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)
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.

Farallon de Medinilla is one of only two small breeding colonies of the great frigatebird in the Mariana island chain, and is also the largest known nesting site for masked boobies in the Mariana and Caroline islands.

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.

The military uses the island for live fire training, during which bombers drop 500, 750, and 2000 pound bombs, precision guided munitions and mines. Naval ships fire deck mounted guns, using high explosive, point detonating rounds, at the island, and aircraft fire machine guns, cannons and missiles at Farallon de Medinilla.

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) is one of the nation's oldest conservation laws. Enacted in 1918, it implements international treaties between the U.S., Japan, Russia, Mexico and Canada designed to "save from indiscriminate slaughter and insure the preservation of such migratory birds as are either useful to man or harmless."

The MBTA makes it "unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner," to, among other prohibited actions, "pursue, hunt, take, capture, [or] kill" any migratory bird included in the terms of the treaties without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The USFWS turned down the Navy's 1996 application for a permit to bomb FDM. The Navy did not appeal or reapply, but continued to bomb the island.

sooty tern

Sooty terns soar over Farallon de Medinilla.
Although the Navy argued to the court that uninterrupted use at Farallon de Medinilla is vital to national defense, the court noted the testimony of military officers that other facilities exist that could meet the military's training needs.

The battle to protect Farallon de Medinilla will likely not end here, however. Last week, the Department of Defense submitted to Congress a sweeping proposal to exempt military activities from the MBTA, along with many other environmental laws. The Defense Department has more than 25 million acres of land under its jurisdiction.

Between them, these lands host most of the migratory bird species in the U.S. during some period of the year. Environmental groups say the proposed exemptions could leave many of these hundreds of species, and their habitat, vulnerable to unchecked pollution and active destruction.