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For the birds

By and |  February 28, 2014

Nebraska’s aggregates industry has established a successful partnership with environmental agencies to protect fragile bird populations.

There are two tiny problems Nebraska sand-and-gravel companies deal with each year near the beginning of the mining season: threatened piping plovers and endangered least terns. Sand spoil piles found in gravel pits mimic the ideal sandy-gravelly habitat that these birds have instinctively nested on for centuries. Navigating around the birds and their chicks with bulldozers, scrapers and trucks is no easy task.

piping plover

A nesting piping plover. Photo by Wayne Hathaway

Arriving at a solution to protect the birds during the height of Nebraska’s aggregate mining season has taken the time and cooperation of many entities, but it could provide a model other states might find helpful in resolving their own environmental protection activities.

Conservation partnership
Dr. Mary Bomberger Brown, coordinator of the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership (TPCP), says the program was brought about in the late 1990s by Clemson University’s Dr. Ron Johnson (while he was on the University of Nebraska Extension faculty); fish and wildlife biologist Jeanine Lackey, who at the time was with the UNL School of Natural Resources; and the late John Dinan, a staff member of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these individuals developed what they saw as a better way to manage endangered species in Nebraska, with terns and plovers as the focal species.

Many times, endangered species management involves law enforcement responding to violations of federal and state law, with potential prosecution of perpetrators. Organizers of Nebraska’s partnership wanted to be proactive rather than reactive.

“That kind of action fosters hard feelings and resentment toward endangered species and law enforcement agencies,” Brown says. “Endangered species are always on the losing side of that kind of situation. Johnson and Dinan thought finding a way for law enforcement, regulatory agencies and property owners or potential violators to be on the ‘same side’ would foster progress toward protecting and recovering endangered species.”

Nebraska’s TPCP consists of multiple companies, organizations and groups with an interest in tern and plover conservation and management within the state. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also participate in the partnership.

”Mining companies and property owners have the responsibility to provide nesting habitat for the birds and respect the birds’ presence during nesting season,” Brown says. “The two regulatory agencies have responsibility to supervise partnership activities, enforce state and federal wildlife protection laws, and facilitate discussion among the partners. Natural resource districts and state agencies are responsible for managing activities so as to support nesting birds.

“We wouldn’t have a partnership without the terns and plovers, so their responsibility is to nest, raise their babies and increase their population so they can be removed from the Endangered Species list,” she adds.

Western Sand & Gravel
Dave Brakenhoff, general manager at Nebraska’s Western Sand & Gravel, says Brown’s efforts to help educate and train aggregate mining managers and employees about tern and plover habits and cycles have greatly aided his company in minimizing conflict between mining activities and the birds.

“Mary is a catalyst for the partnership,” Brakenhoff says. “She has a passion for these birds, and works well in connecting people such as ourselves to the mission of monitoring and protecting least terns and piping plovers.”

Mining activities conflict with the birds’ nesting habits in numerous ways. Through participation in the TPCP, Brakenhoff’s company has learned how to better prepare for the birds’ arrival and nesting cycle.

“If we don’t know they’re in the area where we’re working, dozers and loaders could easily run over nests and chicks,” Brakenhoff says. “When we’re dredging sand and gravel, and if nests are in the area to be mined, we have to wait until chicks hatch and fledge before we work in that area.”

Over time, Brakenhoff adds, his company has learned that its operations mimic the flow of water in the nearby Platte River. “Through the training Mary has provided, we now know that if there’s a large amount of rain upstream in the Platte River, causing the water level to rise, sandbars wash out and the birds will be looking for nesting areas in our gravel pits,” he says. “We may still be bombarded with birds looking for dry sand that they find in our pit, but at least we’re prepared for it to happen.”

Through cooperative efforts and discussions on how to guide the birds to other, less-dangerous nesting sites, Western Sand & Gravel has learned how to disturb some areas of sand before birds arrive to help deter them from nesting in certain mining areas.

“We can create mounds in the sand or disc up the ground so it’s rough and uneven, which deters the birds,” Brakenhoff says. “Mylar ribbon that flaps in the wind on stakes also helps discourage nesting.

“At the same time, if we know there’s an area where we won’t be working during nesting season, we will clear vegetation from the area and make it inviting to the birds.”

Brakenhoff’s employees have been trained on how to respond when they discover birds in an active mining area, since they aren’t allowed to remove birds or take action to frighten them away.

“It costs us far less to partner with TPCP and work together to resolve any conflict with the birds, rather than battle the problem on our own,” Brakenhoff says. “We know we’re doing the right thing, creating the habitat the birds need. We take pride in being one of the top sites for terns and plovers to nest and raise their offspring.”

Show me the money
Robert Harms, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at Grand Island, Neb., has been instrumental in establishing a sustainable funding process to support TPCP. For the first 15 or so years after the partnership was formed, annual funding came from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund (NETF). When that resource disappeared in 2011, the TPCP became vulnerable to disappearing, too.

“There was no written agreement to outline partnership member responsibilities,” Harms says. “At one point, we were heading into the 2012 mining season with no funds to pay for visits to gravel pits to assist those companies in abiding with state and federal environmental protection laws. It was clear that the TPCP wouldn’t be able to continue without new sources of funds.”

Harms brought several managers of the sand and gravel companies together to inform them of the impending funding issues — and the negative impact it could have on a wide range of entities if nothing was done to resolve the funding shortfall.

“We didn’t need an incredible amount of money, just enough to keep the conservation partnership in operation,” Harms says. “At that meeting, I hoped to identify and implement an ongoing source of funding, and develop written agreements between the sand-and-gravel companies and the conservation partnership so members knew what was expected of them.”

Some unanticipated outcomes of the meeting also resulted in an increased level of safety for the TPCP when they visit gravel pits to complete monitoring and documentation activities.

“Once we started talking to each other, we were able to develop memorandums of understanding that outlined funding requirements for the partnership and a procedure for agency members visiting gravel pits to ensure they observed U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration and Mine Safety & Health Administration regulations,” Harms says. “We’ve also worked out procedures, such as a process for companies to notify state and federal officials about a need for assistance over the weekend if they needed a biologist to help with a nesting or other environmental issue. Personnel from federal and state agencies have made themselves available on a 24-hour basis to help minimize business disruptions due to environmental concerns.”

Through that Spring 2011 meeting, the TPCP reinforced the teamwork mindset that has made them so successful in protecting Nebraska’s terns and plovers, while maintaining a healthy business environment for the state’s sand-and-gravel industry.

“Our partnership has benefited other Nebraska wildlife species, because company officials have a relationship with us and know who to call when they encounter an environmental conflict,” Harms says. “The interaction of agency representatives and partnership members has built a level of trust that greatly benefits Nebraska’s endangered species.”

Is there a payoff?
Brown reports that the numbers of nesting terns and plovers is increasing, and they are raising more chicks.

“That’s the ultimate goal of the partnership,” Brown says. “Our positive interactions with Nebraska’s sand-and-gravel mining industry are also very important. We’re learning to work together, and that has benefits beyond the positive impact on terns and plovers. We hope our mining partners implement wildlife management and conservation programs in other facets of their corporate life.”

In her role as program coordinator, Brown helps develop plans for each site so mining operations can continue during the nesting season. She also works with summer field assistants to locate nests, protect birds and communicate with mining personnel.

“My responsibilities include conducting seminars and presentations in an effort to educate the public and other Nebraska companies about wildlife management and conservation and help them learn how they can make a difference,” Brown says. “We hope this partnership demonstrates that we can manage wildlife and implement successful conservation programs on mine property and, by extension, to privately owned property. It’s possible to protect and manage wildlife and at the same time generate revenue for a company, create and maintain jobs and produce useful commodities. Conservation and wildlife management don’t have to be confrontational activities.”

Additional information about TPCP, terns and plovers is available at www.ternandplover.unl.edu.

Meet these fine, feathered friends
Piping plovers are one of six species of “ringed” Charadrius plovers found in North America. Two subspecies (C. melodus melodus along the Atlantic Coast; C. m. circumcinctus inland) and three nesting populations (Atlantic, Northern Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains) are currently recognized. The Northern Great Plains population nests in Nebraska.

Piping plovers are migratory, overwintering along the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico. They are in Nebraska from April to August.

Least terns are the smallest of the terns. Three subspecies — interior (Sterna antillarum athalassos), Eastern (S. a. antillarum), and California (S. a. browni) are currently recognized. The interior subspecies nests in Nebraska, and are found there from May through August.

“Their nests are simple cups the birds scrape in the sand,” says Dr. Mary Bomberger Brown, University of Nebraska/Lincoln School of Natural Resources. “Historically, the birds found this bare, open sand on midstream river sandbars. However, with all the changes we’ve made to our rivers through irrigation, barge traffic, etc., there aren’t many river sandbars available to the birds and they look elsewhere to nest.”

Sand-and-gravel mining operations deposit waste sand around a center pit lake, inadvertently creating habitat for nesting terns and plovers. The large expanses of sand provide nesting area, and the pit lake is a good place for terns and plovers to feed.

Nests are about 4 in. in diameter and 2 in. deep. Terns sit on their eggs for three weeks. Plovers sit on their eggs for four weeks.

“Terns and plovers are typically nesting and fledging their young for a period of eight to 10 weeks between April and July,” Brown says. “Terns lay two or three eggs. Plovers lay four eggs. For both species, eggs are tan and brown and about 1 in. long, so they’re hard to spot on the sand.”

Chicks generally hatch in about three weeks. The chicks then follow their parents around the sand for another three to four weeks before heading south toward a winter habitat.

Even if their color caused these tiny birds to stand out against the sand, it would be difficult to spot them from the seat of a bulldozer or truck. As it is, they’re highly camouflaged to blend in with their environment, challenging equipment operators to recognize their presence.

“Because their nests are on the ground and the birds are so hard to see against the sand, they’re very vulnerable to being run over by trucks, ATVs and heavy equipment,” Brown says. “You can even step on them just walking across the sand.”

The first published record of piping plovers nesting on Nebraska’s sand-and-gravel mine areas was written by Gayle Pickwell, a member of the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union. The nest was spotted on May 20, 1922, during an annual bird hike and described as “a Belted Piping Plover’s nest on a strip of sandy beach at Capitol Lake near Lincoln (Nebraska).” Dredging activity in the area had resulted in a large sloping beach of sand and gravel. Pickwell followed the nests until the birds hatched.

Ralph E. Dawson of Lincoln first reported least terns nesting on sand spill piles at Capitol Beach Lake in Lancaster County near Lincoln during the summers of 1920 and 1922.

Capt. Meriwether Lewis made reference to what is believed to be least terns and/or piping plovers in his August 5, 1804 diary entry: “I have frequently observed an acquatic bird in the cours of ascending this river … they lay their eggs on the sand bars without shelter or nest … I believe them to be a native of this country and probably a constant resident.”

Loretta Sorensen is a freelance writer in Yankton, S.D. She produces material on a variety of topics, serves as a ghostwriter, and has authored her own books.

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