Audubon Fights to Save the Piping Plover

     BROOKLYN (CN) – Efforts to shore up Fire Island and prevent more damage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy threaten the “survival and recovery” of the threatened Atlantic Coast piping plover, the National Audubon Society claims in Federal Court.
     The Army Corps of Engineers plans to preserve the coast by building a series of sand dunes and berms along 19 miles of the Fire Island shoreline in Long Island.
     The Audubon Society claims that the project “will result in immediate and long-term significant adverse impacts on piping plover habitat.”
     Audubon claims the federal government failed to “properly consider” the “cumulative impacts on piping plovers,” nor did it objectively study all alternatives.
     The group has “long advocated” for the piping plover’s protection on Long island and Fire Island.
     The group identified the area as an “Important Bird Area” in 1998, and reaffirmed that designation in 2005.
     It hired a full-time biologist in 2009 to “help steward piping plovers on Long Island by installing predator enclosures and string fencing around piping plover nests, and advising beachgoers and managers on how to avoid negative impact to plovers,” according to the lawsuit.
     The group submitted its objections to the government’s plan to install the berms on Fire Island in April, and asked for alternative measures to protect the birds.
     It says that 1,615 of its members formally submitted comments to the Corps of Engineers critiquing the project, and that it met with Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife northeast region director, to “discuss concerns about the impacts” of the project.
     It submitted more comments in June and asked for a more comprehensive environmental impact study.
     The shorebird, Charadrius moldus, is named for its “plaintive whistle,” and has “yellow-orange legs and a black stripe from eye to eye,” according to the complaint.
     They nest in three distinct breeding populations along the Atlantic Coast, from April to August, before migrating south at the beginning of August.
     The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as endangered in the Great Lakes watershed in 1986, and as threatened everywhere else in its range.
     The bird’s population has dropped by 32 percent in the New York-New Jersey area since 2007, according to the complaint.
     As of 2013, the productivity of the bird in that area reached a “record low of .74 chicks per breeding pair – well below the replacement rate,” according to the complaint.
     “Thus, if the ongoing precipitous decline in piping plover populations in the New York-New Jersey recovery unit is not arrested and reversed, the persistence of the entire Atlantic Coast piping plover population will be jeopardized,” the lawsuit states.
     In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy created 162 hectares (400 acres) of new overwash habitat on Fire Island, according to the complaint.
     The Audubon Society says that the beach stabilization project will “inhibit natural renewal of ephemeral pools, bay tidal flats and open vegetation,” and allow “natural storm processes that create habitat to act unimpeded.”
     “The burying of existing beaches under dredged material temporarily destroys available prey resources along the coast while the construction of dunes running parallel to the ocean fragments nesting habitat from optimal foraging habitat and prevents plovers from accessing bayside areas for foraging,” the Audubon Society says.
     “Thus, beach stabilization, which results in artificially created beaches without access to high quality bayside foraging areas, may lead to ‘population sinks,’ that recruit plover pairs to the area ‘only to yield to reproduction levels less than one chick per pair, which is below the level necessary to achieve a stationary population level.”
     Additionally, beach stabilization forces the birds to constrain their nests and chicks to “narrow, dry oceanfront habitats,” where they are exposed to threats from humans and people’s pets.
     The beachfront project is expected to place about 7 million cubic yards of dredged sand along 19 miles of the 30-mile-long Fire Island coastline, create dunes along 4.4 miles of Robert Moses State Park, 8.6 miles of beach habitat with the Fire Island National Seashore, and 5.2 miles in Smith Point County Park.
     Founded in 1905, the Audubon Society is a nonprofit “dedicated to conserving and restoring natural ecosystem, with a focus on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats, for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.”
     Named as defendants are the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; the United States Army Corps of Engineers; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Daniel M. Ashe; and other top officials in the agencies.
     The Audubon Society seeks to block the construction of the berms.
     It is represented by Hannah Chang with Earthjustice.

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