By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday said government officials may shoot down migratory birds flying near New York City airports to protect aircraft, rejecting claims by an animal rights group that such killings are excessive.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York upheld a federal permit issued to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that allowed bird shootings in emergency situations.
Protecting aircraft from birds gained new attention after a U.S. Airways pilot landed his plane safely in the Hudson River in January 2009, following a collision with a flock of geese.
But some conservation groups believe authorities should trap and relocate birds where possible, rather than kill them.
The group Friends of Animals challenged a June 2014 permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that empowered the Port Authority to stop any "direct threat to human safety" posed by migratory birds.
That permit was issued six months after the killings of three snowy white owls at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Tens of thousands of birds were killed near Kennedy under other permits issued since 1994, court papers show.
Friends of Animals said the latest permit was too broad because it allowed killings of migratory birds regardless of species, including those that are easy to catch.
Writing for the appeals court, however, Circuit Judge José Cabranes said the Fish and Wildlife Service had authority to issue the permit and that the permit authorized using lethal force.
Curbing the use of such force could put Port Authority officials "in the untenable position of having to choose between violating federal law and deliberately ignoring serious threats to human safety," Cabranes wrote for a three-judge panel.
Tuesday's decision upheld an October 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, New York.
Michael Harris, legal director of Friends of Animals, said in an email that he was disappointed.
"What the Court of Appeals has actually affirmed is that our nation's laws, as currently constituted, legitimize the indiscriminate, unnecessary killing of animals," he said.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Robert Capers in Brooklyn, who defended the permit, declined to comment.
The case is Friends of Animals v. Clay et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-4071.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)