We Have Failed to Adequately Protect Bellingham’s Great Blue Herons


As an avid amateur bird watcher and conservationist, I was deeply alarmed, saddened and shamed by an article in the September 19, 2019 issue of Science magazine reporting that since 1970, three billion North American birds have vanished from the skies. That’s a loss of nearly 30% of the total bird population of the continent within my lifetime, mostly attributable to habitat loss. At that rate of loss, there will be no birds at all in 100+ years.

So how are we doing protecting the habitat of Bellingham’s Great Blue Herons (GBH), a Washington state-designated priority species? The iconic GBH—almost a symbol of our city—shows up everywhere: business logos, lawn sculpture, artwork, and especially in photographs enticing visitors to our city. As a priority species, it requires protective measures for its continued existence according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The department makes recommendations to municipalities on how to manage threatened, sensitive, and priority species and these are enacted through, most notably, the Growth Management Act and the City of Bellingham’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

Bellingham designated the colony a habitat conservation area in accordance with 16.55.470 A (1) (c) of the municipal code after the birds landed in trees that buffer the Post Point sewage treatment plant in Fairhaven in 1999. Employees at Public Works have taken important measures to protect the birds. These include establishing a 197-foot buffer around the colony core, restoring the lagoon for foraging, moving a public trail, and hiring a wildlife biologist, Ann Eissinger, to monitor the colony on an annual basis as well as develop a heron colony management plan. One of the most important recommendations in the initial 2003 management plan was:

Designate the area delineated in Figure 7 [see below], as a permanent heron/wildlife reserve, including roost area, wind break, area for nest material recruitment, further screening, area for colony expansion. This area is recommended for permanent protection as a publicly owned wildlife/natural area in perpetuity …Because this area contains private land, it is recommended that the City purchase the property.

From the Post Point Heron Management Plan 2003 by Ann Essinger, Nahkeeta Northwest Wildlife Services
From the Post Point Heron Management Plan 2003 by Ann Essinger, Nahkeeta Northwest Wildlife Services

Importantly, Ann Essinger recommended the establishment of a protected, publicly-owned heron reserve that includes not just the nesting trees, but adjacent trees and habitat for future growth, wind protection, visual screening, and staging and roosting areas—much of which lies outside the recognized 197-foot minimum buffer. Almost 17 years later, we have failed to take a holistic approach to heron conservation and protection by establishing a reserve. To the contrary, our approach has been piecemeal. For almost two decades, advocates of the GBH and other conservationists have played “whack-a-mole” with land use proposals before the city planning department which have sprung up over the years to develop houses on private property within, or immediately outside the buffer, thus threatening the entire colony.

To justify the approval of land use applications and permits on Shorewood Drive next to the birds, the city planning department has cherry-picked from the WDFW’s recommendations for the protection and management of urban GBH colonies, while ignoring others that may be critically important. For example, city planners have correctly emphasized maintaining a minimum 197-foot buffer around the core colony, a recommendation of WDFW. But they have allowed for schemes to average the buffer around the nesting trees, and building proposals that lie just outside the 197-foot buffer as if this number were as a magic shield to protect the birds from human disturbance.

On the other hand, WDFW uses the best available science to warn against new projects that will increase the level of disturbance from historical levels and asks that municipalities “Give coastal colonies with at least 20 nests close to coastal and estuarine habitat… high priority” (Azerrad p.11). The Post Point colony has twice that number of nests and lies in immediate proximity to Bellingham Bay, a lagoon, and a small wetlands. Yet there is another new land use proposal before the planning department right now to sub-divide the last large undeveloped property on Shorewood Drive and build two houses just outside the 197-buffer (as identified in 2018 but NOT as measured in 2019— buffers move as the birds’ nests do). Certainly this constitutes an increase in human disturbance over historic levels, not only the two new buildings themselves, but the ongoing human disturbance of leaf-blowers, barbeques, fireworks, barking dogs— all within direct line of sight of the herons’ nests. That’s a big no-no according to WDFW. Can we honestly say that we have made protection of the Post Point GBH colony a high priority if the city planning department continues to consider and/or approve land use projects that threaten its very survival?

Readers of NWCitizen and others following the saga of the Post Point herons will know that earlier this year we fought back the awarding of a Critical Areas Permit to build near the colony. And after an extensive citizens’ pressure campaign, the Bellingham City Council agreed unanimously to instruct the mayor to enter into negotiations to purchase all of the undeveloped private property in question. Mayor Linville unequivocally agreed to do so. Unfortunately, the initial offer to one landowner was insufficient, was rejected, and no further negotiations were undertaken. The Linville Administration washed its hand of the herons, leaving this as its legacy.

But we have new mayor, Seth Fleetwood, taking office this month who made greater protection of the GBH colony part of his campaign. His record of environmental leadership and stewardship is unmatched, and we can expect action to permanently protect the GBH according to the recommendations of both Ann Eissinger’s updated heron colony management report, as well as the WDFW. Let’s all support Seth to get the job done. No more half-measures, whack-a-mole, or cherry-picking. After nearly 20 years, it’s well past time to create the publicly-owned Post Point Great Blue Heron Reserve that includes procurement of the remaining undeveloped private property, all under the watchful eye of Public Works. Protecting GBH habitat, including its sustaining ecosystem, is the least we can do to help ensure that these iconic birds, a natural treasure right here in our midst, have a chance at survival in these threatening times.

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About Jamie K. Donaldson

Citizen Journalist • Member since Apr 03, 2019

Jamie K. Donaldson is a long-time activist for peace, social justice, and the environment. She was the founder of the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center in downtown Bellingham, and is retired [...]

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