By Cheryl Stubbendieck
Vice President of Public Relations
Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation
The Endangered Species Act has come home to roost, and the beach goers and city officials of West Hampton Dunes, NY, don't like it.
Endangered piping plovers, sandy-colored birds, began nesting on the public beach in 1991, In 1995, city officials signed an agreement with federal officials to allow a fence to be erected around a nest, once a nest was established. Fifteen percent of the city's budget--$20,000--goes for a plover patrol to protect the birds and their eggs from predators.
Now, there are 38 nesting pairs and 35 chicks basking on the beach, and wildlife officials have virtually closed a two-mile stretch to protect the species. Beginning in March, wildlife officers strung brightly colored fencing around vast areas of the beach and posted signs warning residents of a possible $10,000 fine and jail time if they disturb a nest.
Local folks are upset. "They have given the birds the beach," Tom Scionti, a 19-year resident, told the Associated Press. "I have nothing against these birds, but they have carried this to an all-time extreme." Beachfront property owners say renters have backed out of lease agreements, resulting in losses of $60,000 to $150,000 for the season. West Hampton Dunes, population 500, is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, seeking full access to the beach and $12.5 million in lost property values.
Wildlife officials say the fencing is necessary to protect the birds, their nests and their young from being crushed, or so frightened that they stop eating. A plover chick's natural reaction to a predator is to hunker down into the sand, where it could get squished by a dune buggy or an innocent foot. Even a kite flying overhead could be seen by the plover as a predator and cause it to stop feeding.
To bypass the restricted area, beachfront residents must drive about two miles to one of two publicly accessible beaches or walk hundreds of yards to one of eight narrow access ways that allow them to walk to the high tide mark. "Did you ever try that on a hot day, with a screaming toddler, umbrella, cooler and an elderly mother-in-law in tow?" asks Scionti, the longtime resident.
Most farmers probably would have to tell Scionti that no, they hadn't tried a three-generation beach trek. But they can sympathize. How about this, Tom? See how easy it is to farm, when the Endangered Species Act says your private property is or could be home to an endangered species that must be protected, even though it costs you time, money or inconvenience. Is this sounding familiar, Tom? The occasional piping plover hangs out in Nebraska, too.
What is interesting about the New York beach case is that the plovers only began nesting on the beach in 1991, possibly because one of those famous nor'easters caused a breach that allowed sea water to wash over the beach into the bay. Flat, washed-over beaches are ideal nesting areas for plovers.
The New York case suggests that anyplace an endangered species choose to live must be protected.
Here in Nebraska, we are familiar with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanting to protect the anecdotal "historic range" of the supposedly endangered prairie dog. If we protect anywhere an endangered species might have lived and anywhere it might choose to, that doesn't leave much unregulated land for the rest of us.
Our new friend Tom perhaps is feeling endangered himself. Welcome to the club, Tom, farmers have felt that way for a good deal longer.