Island News, Piping Plover
Could this bird close Marco's
Case in Point for Marco
Islander's: No one wishes for any species to slip into
extinction. But in Long Island's Hamptons, the delicate
desires of a tiny bird are taking precedence over the rights
Many are affected by the regulations
of the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, this year enjoying its
25th anniversary. While it's difficult to throw a stone in the
nation's capital without hitting an environmentalist, many
affected by the regulations of the act say the extreme
policies and the financial burdens it places on taxpayers is
for the birds. A case in point is that of the Atlantic Coast
piping plover (Charadrius melodus).
In the late 1950s the number of
plovers began to decline. In 1972, the National Audubon
Society placed the piping plover on its "blue list"
of birds in serious trouble. Through private organizations and
informal mechanisms the issue soon was put on the radar screen
of the Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, which added the
piping plover to the endangered-species list in 1986.
The most recent figures available
from the FWS show that in the 10 states that constitute the
Atlantic Coast zone, nearly $2 million in federal and state
money was spent in 1993 on efforts to save the plover, a
stocky shorebird weighing in at just under 2 ounces. The 1993
expenditures do not include the enormous expenses incurred by
individual landowners, businesses or town and county
governments. The plover's dwindling population apparently is
the result of their discomfort in their breeding grounds.
The FWS has divided the breeding area
of the species into three zones--the Atlantic Coast, which
extends from Newfoundland to South Carolina; the Great Lakes
beaches; and the major river systems and wetlands of the
Northern Great Plains. The plovers arrive in these areas in
late March or early April and the breeding season continues
until the first part of September -- which is the prime beach
season for residents and tourists.
Because plovers mate and hatch their
young in beach areas, and because the chicks are extremely
small and their markings blend into the natural surroundings,
people are a natural hazard. Also, the plovers and their
chicks are highly susceptible to predators such as foxes,
raccoons, possums, dogs and even other birds.
Eastern Long Islanders, who enjoy
some of the most scenic shoreline in North America, are
intimately familiar with the burdens imposed by protecting the
plover. Small businesses, such as gift shops, restaurants and
hotels, depend on the seasonal beach population for their
livelihoods. However, because the beaches of the East End of
Long Island are prime breeding ground for the plovers, large
areas of the beach randomly are cordoned off so the plover may
enjoy uninterrupted breeding and hatching.
According to Terchunian, "It's
like being in negotiations with someone who doesn't want to
negotiate. The FWS agrees to one thing, then comes back
wanting more. You wouldn't believe what we do to make them
happy. When people first hear about what we go through, they
think it's funny. But when they're directly affected by the
regulations, they get angry."
The mayor of West Hampton Dunes, Gary
Viglianti, also is well-aware of the bird problems. It's early
in the breeding season, but already he has confronted a
serious dilemma. "We have a case," says Viglianti,
"where a plover has nested 10 feet from our main road.
The FWS has recommended we close the road to everyone except
essential people because the bird may want to cross the road.
What do I do--get some nazi traffic cop to stand there and
decide who's essential and who isn't? We're coming into peak
beach season, and this is the only road in and out of the
village. How much sense does this make?"
Viglianti has years of experience
with just this type of problem, and he knows the FWS
guidelines well. "What we do" the mayor says,
"is move the nest, chicks and all. It's really very
simple: You take a 2-pound coffee can, carefully put it over
the nest, push it in the sand, and with a shovel dig deep
below the nest and gently carry it to where you want it. The
trick is that you move slow enough so the bird will watch you
moving the nest and hopefully follow." Viglianti laughs,
saying, "Some of these recommendations are too much, but
you know we're doing all we can for the plovers, and still
I've had the FWS imply that if I don't put their
recommendations into place I'd be violating the ESA and they
could put me in jail."
It's the day-to-day attention to the
nesting plovers that keeps local residents of these seaside
communities on their toes. They gingerly tiptoe along the
seashore, ever vigilant, keeping their eyes peeled for plover
sightings, prepared to provide the necessary assistance ... if
first they obtain the appropriate plover permits.
Take, for instance, predator
"enclosures." These are cages of welded wire fencing
36 inches high and 5 feet in diameter that must be placed
around a nest. The FWS guidelines say this job is best
accomplished with a crew of two to four people and that
construction first should be practiced on a "dummy
nest" so that enclosing time does not exceed 20 minutes.
Should a nest then be spotted and action required, written
permission to enclose must be obtained from the state
environmental office, which will designate that the practiced
plover enclosers are official FWS agents.
In fact, just about any activity that
comes within earshot of a plover requires at least one permit,
if not several. To conduct construction of a waterway project
that might interfere with the breeding of the plovers, for
instance, the Corps of Engineers was required to obtain the
blessing of the New York Department of Environmental
Conservation, New York Department of State and the National
Park Service as well as the FWS.
Additional FWS guidelines call for
setting up a minimum 50-meter buffer around breeding areas
"in instances where plovers are especially intolerant of
human presence." And, "on portions of beaches that
receive heavy human use, areas where territorial plovers are
observed should be symbolically fenced to prevent disruption
of displays and courtship."
These are just two recommendations in
nearly 20 pages of guidelines. All of this fencing and
cordoning off of beaches occurs during tourist season, when it
is estimated that on the East End of Long Island 18 million
people will attempt to visit the beaches. To enforce such
stringent guidelines, towns and villages are forced to keep
tabs on nests by engaging a small army of paid and volunteer
monitors and stewards who literally patrol the beaches and
report violations. And, should the unspeakable occur, the
dread "taking", the event is treated very much like a
"It's like a swat team,"
says Terchunian. "The area around the dead chick is
cordoned off like a police scene and a representative of the
FWS, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation
office and the local Harbor Master come in to investigate the
death. Sometimes they even do autopsies on the chicks to
determine the cause of death". At each step of the
process, taxpayers pick up the tab.
"A lot of us like the plovers,
but I'm not an advocate of irresponsible spending," says
Viglianti. "$7 million over three years, not including
the lost revenue because of building restrictions, is a lot of
money for 1,400 pair of birds." And their numbers are
growing. "First FWS said they needed 1,200 pair so we hit
that mark, and now they say they need 2,000 pair. It seems as
though this has become an industry. If the plovers are taken
off the list, I guess some people won't have a job."
According to Anne Hecht, an FWS
endangered-species biologist, Viglianti may not be too far off
in his assessment. The FWS' objective is to increase and
maintain 2,000 pair of plovers for five years. "Less than
half the birds survive the first year" says Hecht. "But three-quarters who do survive will then survive an
average of four or five years." Sounds easy enough, but
Hecht adds that "the things we're doing for the piping
plover are only good as long as they're being done, and it
looks like this is going to be a long-term effort."
Maybe very long term!
The task of
saving the plover has a little hitch that likely will make
saving them more difficult than even the respected biologist
may have anticipated. It is widely known that piping plovers
are considered a culinary delicacy in Latin America, where
they are eaten in large numbers. Delights such as
broiled plover on toast, bisque of plover and roasted plover
are just a few of the recipes available in South and Central
America. Based on the 1993 figures of U.S. taxpayer dollars
spent to protect them, plovers are among the most expensive
delicacy in the world, running just over $300 an ounce. Ah,
but mucho de-licious!