By Dr. Michael Izard-Carroll (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) & Rebecca Sayers (Presque Isle State Park)October 31, 2017
Having been absent from Presque Isle State Park for over 50 years, the endangered Piping Plover has made a modest, yet significant return to the Park.
The two nesting pairs at Presque Isle are of particular interest because the birds have not nested there since the 1950s, where up until that time, about 15 pairs of Piping Plover nested regularly on the shores.
"This is a testament to dedication and teamwork, not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the species' range", said Dan Brauning, Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Program Chief. "Their return wasn't by chance, or an accident."
Over the years, a number of organizations have raised concerns about the declining Piping Plover population, and the return of the species was the culmination of a collaborative effort among organizations such as the Presque Isle Audubon, Audubon Pennsylvania, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Buffalo District, the Regional Science Consortium, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
"The strong partnership these organizations have shared for a long time has paid off" said Lt. Col. Adam Czekanski, Commander of the USACE, Buffalo District. "From the top down, our leadership reiterates the benefits of working together with local and state partners. To see an endangered species find its home again at Presque Isle is truly inspiring and reminds us of the benefits of collaboration."
Presque Isle State Park was not the only area to show a decline in the Piping Plover population. The last recorded pair of Piping Plover to nest in the Erie Basin was at Long Point in Ontario, Canada in 1977. The Great Lakes Piping Plover was granted federal protection in 1986 by the USFWS when they were put on the Endangered Species List. At that time, only 17 breeding pairs of Great Lakes Piping Plover remained, and all of them were found on the shoreline of Michigan. In 2001, fewer than 3,000 Piping Plover were left globally, and in 2009, there were just 71 breeding pairs found in the Great Lakes region, covering three U.S. states and in Ontario, Canada.
Presque Isle State Park is a sandy peninsula located on the southern shore of Lake Erie in the City of Erie, Pennsylvania. The peninsula is a natural breakwater that forms and protects Erie Harbor, Pennsylvania, and is home to Presque Isle State Park. The Park, which extends the full length of the peninsula, includes 13 miles of roads, 21 miles of recreational trails, 13 beaches for swimming, and a marina. Gull Point, a designated natural area, is situated at the terminus of the peninsula. Gull Point is the most ecologically sensitive area within the Park and has been under careful monitoring by a variety of organizations.
In 1994 the Presque Isle Audubon Society spearheaded a campaign to designate Gull Point as a natural area, thereby closing it to public use during the breeding and nesting season and better preserving its sensitive nature. In a study performed by Cleveland Museum of Natural History, 45 species listed as Plants of Special Concern in Pennsylvania were found at Gull Point between 1985 and 1997.
The plan to encourage the return of the Piping Plover first involved designating particular areas of focus along the beach, stretching about four miles from the lighthouse to the southern terminus of the hiking tail on the southeast side of Gull Point Natural Area. After an evaluation of each site, Gull Point showed to have the greatest potential for providing a habitat suitable for nesting Piping Plovers. Criteria used for making the determination included which site would have the lowest human disturbance while also having sufficient cobble and woody debris cover. Gull Point met six out of the seven criteria used to establish a good nesting habitat for the Piping Plover, with its one deficiency being that the site was not more than 50 meters to the shoreline.
On-going beach nourishment activities along the peninsula are being performed by USACE and DCNR under an agreement signed in 1989. This agreement established a partnership for the construction of 55 segmented offshore breakwaters and 50-years of annual sand placement to nourish the peninsula shoreline. The project concept was developed to protect the peninsula from severe erosion in a manner that would allow the lake littoral flows to move the sand along the shoreline in a natural manner to nourish park beaches and Gull Point. So while the primary purpose of this $2 - $3 million per year nourishment effort was to mitigate shoreline erosion, the project provides the ancillary benefit of establishing increased habitat for the Piping Plover through wider, consistent beaches.
Annual project activities are performed under a programmatic agreement between USACE and USFWS which establishes sand placement limits and work exclusion periods. Nourishment contracts include requirements for general park-wide and placement area plover monitors (provided by Audubon Pennsylvania).
One of the major changes in the Gull Point Natural Area was the encroachment of two invasive species, phragmites and narrow-leaf cattail. Shortly after 1997, two other invasive species started to take root, canary grass and purple loosestrife. In 2001, park staff and invasive species interns removed reed grass and narrow-leaf cattail from the West Inlet, with the intent of having a positive impact on the Piping Plover population. The invasive species quickly reinvaded after work had to be suspended for fear of harming a mussel population that was located in an adjacent bay.
Later, in 2007, the number of rare plants on Gull Point dropped to an all-time low. Mugwort, black locust, and Norway maple became threats to Gull Point. Seventeen of the once present rare plants mapped on Gull Point could not be found. In 2011, a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative enabled the annual vegetation-control program within 33 acres of Gull Point Natural Area.
To improve the habitability of the area, Presque Isle State Park developed an extensive Piping Plover recovery plan. The park initially ranked as having low to moderate likelihood of supporting a re-colonization effort but the probability of success increased as the species' population increased. In 2005, after a Piping Plover exhibited nesting behavior, the USFWS increased its enforcement effort to manage the critical habitat area. In addition, the Game Commission, DCNR, Audubon Pennsylvania, and other partners prepared to evaluate the habitat and prepare it for colonization. In 2011 and 2012, nesting habitat for Piping Plovers was restored at the Gull Point Natural Area, and in 2015 enough Piping Plovers were seen on Gull Point to classify them as an active colony, though no successful nests were yet identified.
In 2016, portable trail cameras were installed on Gull Point to monitor nest activity, and plans to move forward hinged on the observance of a successful nesting. Nesting occurred, but the eggs were predated and the Plovers left the area.
Two pairs of Piping Plovers nested on the shores of Gull Point during the 2017 season. One nest was successful, with two out of three eggs hatching. A second nest was overcome by waves, however the eggs from that nest were collected and transported to the Detroit Zoo, where two out of three eggs hatched and the young were released on the Michigan shoreline.
Piping Plover tend to return to nesting grounds when they have had previous success in producing offspring and therefore the federal and state partners will continue to monitor the species activities in the months and years to come. Officials are hopeful that the pair will return to Presque Isle State Park for the 2018 season.
With the global population of Piping Plovers being up to only 4,000 (from 3000 in 2001), the success of the species in Presque Isle State Park may dictate the success of the species survival worldwide. The Piping Plover is considered an umbrella species to the environment it lives in, as protecting this species will indirectly protect other species in the same environment, and so the return of the Piping Plover reflects the overall health of the ecosystems at Presque Isle State Park.
"This collaborative effort exemplifies that conservation does not happen in a vacuum," said Catherine D. Haffner with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "It is through this great partnerships that Piping Plovers have found once again found their way back to the shorelines of Pennsylvania."