July 12, 2008

‘Critical Habitat’ Areas for Piping Plover Under Review

By Melissa Mcever, Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, Texas

Jul. 12--They're small birds in big trouble.

The piping plover, a squat, sandy-colored bird that spends its winters on the Gulf Coast, is a threatened species in this region, and endangered in its breeding grounds in the northern Great Plains, Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast.

To prevent the piping plover's further depletion, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated certain tracts of land, including some portions of the Rio Grande Valley, as "critical habitat" for the threatened bird.

Now, the agency is revising those designations and seeking the public's input.

Fish and Wildife officials are proposing 18 revamped critical habitat areas for the piping plover, all of them along the Texas coast from south of Houston to South Padre Island. These critical habitat designations add another layer of protection to a species already covered under the federal Endangered Species Act, said Dawn Whitehead, supervisory biologist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ecological services field office in Corpus Christi.

"It adds a little bit of extra consideration for the species," Whitehead said of the designations. "It protects where they go for food and shelter."

The Endangered Species Act prohibits any disturbance or damage to animals that are in danger of extinction, and requires that federal agencies make sure any projects don't disturb endangered species.

Designating critical habitat takes the protections a step further, requiring federal agencies to have special permits for projects built in those areas. State agencies or counties might also need permission to construct anything in those areas if using federal money or permits, Whitehead said.

Private landowners generally won't be affected, she said.

Federal officials first designated several regions on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts as critical habitat for piping plover in 2001, including 19 tracts in Texas. The Texas General Land Office, however, objected, filing a lawsuit in 2006.

According to the lawsuit, the state agency objected to the "over-inclusion" of coastal land that doesn't necessarily serve as habitat for piping plovers.

To be designated as critical habitat, an area of land must have certain "physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species," according to the Endangered Species Act.

Also, some of these designations limited companies' ability to conduct oil and gas exploration along the coast, the lawsuit says. The General Land Office is in charge of oil and gas development in the state.

A federal judge ruled in the state agency's favor, calling on Fish and Wildlife Service to revise its habitat designations in Texas.

The new designations are more precisely mapped and only include areas that are most critical to piping plovers, Whitehead said.

"We were able to take out open-water areas and places they wouldn't be," she said.

Included in the designations is a 30-mile stretch of beach from the Mansfield Channel to Andy Bowie Park on South Padre Island; a similar stretch from the Mansfield Channel to the Gulf of Mexico on the Laguna Madre side; and a 17,000-acre stretch on the bay's western shoreline.

Texas General Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said the agency was reviewing the new designations and hadn't yet submitted comments to the federal government.

A representative of the local Frontera Audubon Society said he agreed with biologists at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, who said they thought the new designations would provide needed protections for the piping plover.

Comments on these designations must be submitted by July 21. The proposal can be viewed and comments made online at .


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Copyright (c) 2008, Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, Texas

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