This tiny, endangered bird is choking tourism business at popular Lake Ontario beach –


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On the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, this looked like the year everything would finally turn around for Cathy Goodnough and the marina that’s been the family business for 116 years.Greene Pointe Marina at Sandy Pond had been destroyed in the flood of 2017, rebuilt, and raised up at a cost of more than $1.2 million, only to be damaged again by flooding in 2019.With the coronavirus pandemic easing, Goodnough began preparing for a banner summer at Sandy Pond and the surrounding beaches at Sandy Island Beach State Park in northern Oswego County.She led a group of marina and camp owners who paid a company to dredge sand from a shallow channel that provides the only access for boaters to travel between Sandy Pond and Lake Ontario.But four days into the project on April 24, state and federal authorities abruptly ordered the dredging to stop, effectively cutting off access for all but the smallest boats and threatening to ruin another season for Sandy Pond’s marinas and camp owners.Why?It turned out Arwen had flown into town and settled down on the beach. Aragorn showed up a few days later. They haven’t left since.The couple are piping plovers – tiny, stocky shorebirds so rare that their unique Great Lakes subspecies is in danger of becoming extinct.Arwen, the female, and Aragorn, the male – named after characters from “The Lord of the Rings” – are among only 72 nesting pairs of piping plovers known to exist in all of the Great Lakes.The birds, which nest in the sand, have been protected from disturbances like dredging by the federal Endangered Species Act since 1986.By then, piping plovers had disappeared from Lake Ontario. Only 12 pairs were left in the entire Great Lakes Basin – all in Michigan.Thanks to conservation efforts to restore lost habitat, Sandy Island Beach State Park became a safe haven for the birds – and Arwen and Aragorn have become celebrities among birders.In 2018, Arwen and Aragon had four chicks at Sandy Pond, marking the first time in at least 50 years that piping plovers had successfully nested there. The couple has retuned every year since, identified by the unique ID bands wildlife biologists attached to their legs.Last week, three new chicks hatched in the nest Arwen and Aragon built about 500 feet from the channel. And for the first time in decades, a second couple – Ajax and Arlene – showed up and started a nest at Sandy Island Beach, about 200 feet from the channel.To environmental and conservation groups, it’s part of a remarkable success story to save a species whose decline is blamed on loss of habitat to coastal development and disturbances to traditional nesting grounds on dry, sandy beaches.To Goodnough and other business and camp owners at Sandy Pond, the birds are a symbol of conservation policies that have gone too far, threatening their livelihood and a tourism industry that accounts for about 50 percent of the tax basis for the town of Sandy Creek.All told, 3,000 to 4,000 boats typically dock at seven marinas on Sandy Pond, with eight campgrounds and at least seven bars and restaurants operating near the nearly 5-mile-long pond.Now the issue is gaining attention far from the small towns and villages along the eastern shore of Lake Ontario.Congress swoops inRep. Claudia Tenney, who represents the region in Congress, is trying to convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers to grant an exception allowing limited dredging to resume at the Sandy Pond channel while the birds are nesting.The agencies have refused those requests to date, noting that dredging is permitted at Sandy Pond only until April 1.Goodnough and her neighbors had already received an exception to dredge in late April, with the understanding that dredging would stop if the piping plovers returned.Normally, the group pays for annual dredging in the fall. But the combination of low water levels and the deposit of more sand than usual this spring made dredging an urgent priority.Tenney, R-New Hartford, brought up the issue in a speech on the House floor last week and called for reforms to the federal Endangered Species Act.Tenney argued that the area closest to the Sandy Pond channel should not have been classified as a critical habitat area for the piping plovers.“Unfortunately, the federal government and state bureaucrats, have dug in and refused to compromise, despite the fact that dredging can begin again safely and responsibly without threatening the life or habitat of the birds,” Tenney said in her speech.“And all the while the community at Sandy Pond continues to suffer,” Tenney said. “The harm could be irreparable as the situation grows more dire each day as the safe passage into Sandy Pond, to and from Lake Ontario, becomes impossible.”The government agencies charged with protecting the piping plover habitat say they are also looking out for the interests of residents and business owners. But the rules are clear.“To prevent the displacement of the piping plover, dredging is permitted prior to April 1st, before plovers have migrated back to the area, or in the fall when the young have fledged, and the birds have left the site,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement.‘Somebody is going to kill these birds’Back at Sandy Pond, Goodnough said she tried to dredge earlier this year, but faced bureaucratic delays in receiving the necessary government permits. Plus, she said, there’s often ice in the lake before the April 1 deadline.“I have been trying to find a happy medium to dredge while abiding by the piping plover habitat laws,” Goodnough said. “Had the water been up to where it was last year, we probably would have been OK.”Goodnough offered to dredge in “economy mode,” a quieter, less intrusive process that she maintains won’t disturb the nesting birds. But state and federal agencies turned her down.Now with less than 3-feet of water in the channel, Goodnough said, her business is down 30 percent compared to last year. Sales of gas and accessories have declined by $21,800 heading into what’s normally the peak Fourth of July weekend.Goodnough said she’s also concerned about public safety.The town of Sandy Creek has moved its fire and rescue boats out of Sandy Pond due to the shallow channel, a move that could delay response time to someone suffering a medical emergency on their boat in Lake Ontario or on the beach.With each passing day that the plovers and their chicks remain on the beach, tempers are running short around Sandy Pond, she said.“I’ve said this before,” Goodnough said. “Somebody is going to kill these birds. People want to know why the bird is more important than public safety and the economic impact. I hear it all the time.”Members of Onondaga Audubon, an environmental group that helps protect and monitor the plovers, worry about the same thing. The group’s volunteers have posted warning signs and fences near the nesting birds and monitor the nests 24/7 with video surveillance.Alison Kocek, vice president of Onondaga Audubon and a volunteer who monitors the nests, saw first-hand how tempers can flare out of control.While hiking to a nest site recently, a woman passing by saw her birding gear and began shouting at Kocek and her colleagues. The woman called her Satan and told the Audubon volunteers to leave the area.Kocek said those are the people that she worries may try to harm the nesting birds, or their defenseless, flightless chicks.“I have hope and faith that the community of Sandy Pond are responsible humans that would know it’s wrong to cause harm to a protected species,” Kocek said. “Doing that is not going to solve the problem. These birds will continue to return to the area.”Kocek said the plovers will likely leave the nesting grounds by late summer or early fall, allowing for dredging to resume at Sandy Pond.“I wish people could understand that nobody is trying to stop anyone’s good time,” Kocek said. “This is just how the world turns. The plovers are a good target because they can’t fight back.”Taking matters into their own handsKocek said she knows the eastern shore of Lake Ontario has a history of battles between the fishing and tourism industry and those who enforce federal laws that protect migratory birds.In 1998, things boiled over when more than 10,000 double-crested cormorants colonized Little Galloo Island, a 43-acre uninhabited island north of Sandy Pond near Henderson Harbor in Jefferson County.Fishing charter captains complained the birds – a formerly threatened species protected by the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act – were literally eating their source of income.Unable to work things out with state and federal officials, some fishing boat captains took matters into their own hands in July 1998. One night, men armed with shotguns killed more than 2,000 cormorants as the defenseless birds roosted on the island.It was the biggest slaughter of migratory birds in the United States since the late 1800s.The slaughter quickly gained national attention. Leslie Alexander, then the owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team, offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who killed the birds.A year later, 10 sport fishermen and fishing boat captains pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They were sentenced to home confinement and ordered to pay a total of $19,000 in fines and $27,500 in restitution.Can’t we all get along?Ron Fisher Jr., who has owned a camp along a channel that feeds into Sandy Pond for more than 25 years, said he’d like to see stakeholders work out a solution that’s good for businesses, residents, and the endangered plovers.“I don’t know what the solution is,” Fisher said. “There are people with very strong passions on both sides. But I’ve got to believe people should be able to put their heads together to protect the birds and keep the channel open. We’ve just got to get people to sit down in a level-headed way and work things out.”The prevailing winds and wave action have always driven tons of sand into the Sandy Pond inlet each winter, Fisher said. But he said this year is different than any other in almost three decades.“We have a situation where we have extremely low water and a lot of sand,” he said. “I don’t remember ever seeing that level of low water and the sand clogging things up. The low water is exacerbating everything this year.”As a result, he hasn’t taken his 18-foot boat out on the water this year. He’s thinking of using his motorized rowboat instead. And Fisher said he’s not alone.“The economic impact out there is huge this year,” Fisher said. “You just don’t see people out on the water.”Kocek, the Onondaga Audubon vice president, said the temporary inconvenience seems OK to her if it allows a rare, beautiful bird species to once again flourish on Lake Ontario.“This is a value judgement we’ve been making in the United States for quite some time,” said Kocek, a graduate assistant and PhD candidate at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.“In general, people value diversity in wildlife and preserving that wildlife,” she said. “Having these birds on our Lake Ontario shore – and sharing the shore with these birds – while it can cause us to give a little, the benefit is pretty great.”Got a tip, comment or story idea? Contact Mark Weiner anytime by: Email | Twitter | Facebook | 571-970-3751Note to readers: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links we may earn a commission.
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