Endangered birds calling
Missouri sandbars home By Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Press & Dakotan With summer nearing an end, two endangered species of birds are migrating south from three sandbar complexes completed in April near the Highway 19 bridge south of Vermillion. In the process, the least tern and piping plover are leaving behind valuable information about turning sandbars into nesting habitat. That information will become a huge stepping stone for constructing more sandbars in the Missouri National Recreational River between Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown and Ponca State Park in Nebraska. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is undertaking the project. The Corps faces a 2015 deadline for implementing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serviceâ�?�?s biological opinion on operating the Missouri River Main Stem System. While terns and plovers nest in the 1,000 miles from Ponca, NE, to Fort Peck, MT, one-fourth of all the birds nest in the 60 miles between Yankton and Ponca, said the Corpsâ�?�? Galen Jons. â�?�?If we include Lewis and Clark Lake, we have over half the terns on the Missouri River,â�? said Jons, who works with the endangered species habitat project out of his office at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton. â�?�?We try to go where the need is, and right now, one of the priorities is the stretch from Yankton to Ponca,â�? he said. â�?�?Other areas we are looking at are the stretch of river below Fort Randall Dam and doing some work up in the northern dam on the Garrison reach (in North Dakota).â�? The project already has a big start, if the current sandbar projects near Vermillion are any indication. The Corps conducted a media visit Tuesday at two emergent sandbar habitat sites and a newly developed backwater near Vermillion. One of those is a 44-acre sandbar made up of 270,000 cubic yards of sand, costing $1.9 million. It is located near Missouri River Mile 775, a mile downstream of the bridge. The other is a $3.1 million, 74-acre sandbar comprised of 432,000 cubic yards of sand. It is located at Missouri River Mile 777.5, about 1.5 miles upstream of the bridge and adjacent to the Frost Wilderness Game Production Area in South Dakota. The next possible sandbar projects have already been discussed, said Greg Pavelka, Corps wildlife biologist with the tern and plover program based at Gavins Point Dam. Those sites include River Marker 795, below the St. Helena, NE, boat ramp, and River Marker 864, 17 miles below Fort Randall Dam. The Corps plans to continue an aggressive construction schedule, said Casey Kruse, the integrated science program manager based at Gavins Point Dam. â�?�?We have a lot of alternative plans. I know we are shooting for four to five complexes of sandbars in the next year,â�? he said. â�?�?The long-term plans call for us to sustain that rate and continue building. We plan to do this upstream as well, at Fort Randall this fall and next spring.â�? The sandbars now located near Springfield present a unique challenge, Kruse said. â�?�?We have sediment depositions that are the cause of concern. Yankton has a concern with the loss of the navigability of Lewis and Clark Lake,â�? he said. â�?�?One of the ways to use that sediment material is to stack it up higher in the delta and use it for a tern and plover nesting area.â�? The Corps and other agencies are already looking at one major change in the sandbar project, Pavelka said. â�?�?Instead of one big bar of over 50 acres, we are looking at several smaller ones of five to 10 acres,â�? he said. â�?�?We are fearful that, if you have the big (sandbars), you might have predators who get on it. Or a rainstorm and hail might wipe out the area.â�? Jons agreed. â�?�?If there is a local catastrophe, a lot of the birds on the sandbar could be lost, which could dent the population. We need to spread these birds out more,â�? he said. So far, the terns and plovers seem to like their new home, said Kelly Crane, the Corpsâ�?�? program director for endangered species habitat in Omaha, NE. â�?�?We are hopeful that this type of habitat is similar to what they have found naturally in the past and they choose to use it,â�? she said. â�?�?They have responded in really good numbers.â�? Once constructed, the sandbars must be kept free of vegetation, and that requires year-round work, Crane said. â�?�?The birds tolerate some vegetation,â�? she said. â�?�?They donâ�?�?t like it because they canâ�?�?t see their predators closing in on them.â�? The sandbars are not meant to last for long periods of time, Crane said. â�?�?We do not build it with permanence. We donâ�?�?t have an anchor or rock,â�? she said. The Corps faces the task of securing the amount of habitat listed in the Biological Opinion (BiOp) recommendations, Crane said. â�?�?We have over 4,500 acres that we need available,â�? she said. â�?�?The way the BiOp spells out, we need 40 acres per mile of habitat. We are nowhere near that.â�? The Corps is looking at alternatives for maintaining the sandbars, focusing on economic as well as biological issues, Kruse said. â�?�?We have research programs looking at potential ways to curb the vegetation on the sandbars so we can extend the usable life for the least tern and piping plovers. We try to shoot for four to five years, but we are extending them out to six and seven years,â�? he said. â�?�?When you extend the life out (for a sandbar), the predators become a problem. The erosion on the sand bar limits the vegetation area, and the food resources begin to diminish as the decomposition process takes place.â�? The Corps is looking to the past for answers for the future, Kruse said. â�?�?In 1995, 1996 and 1997, we had very high water in the Missouri River. The river itself created a tremendous set of sandbars within the Missouri River,â�? he said. â�?�?We saw the least tern and plover reproduce at levels necessary to sustain themselves. How do we put that picture into the river without 1996 flooding every few years? Thatâ�?�?s the challenge in front of us.â�? Reproducing the high-water scenario can take tremendous resources, Kruse said. â�?�?One alternative is to go out and use brute force mechanically,â�? he said. â�?�?Thatâ�?�?s very expensive and time consuming and a difficult option.â�? The Corps may be better served by taking advantage of what Mother Nature has already provided, Jons said. â�?�?We need to make use of whatever is already there,â�? he said. â�?�?We look for wide areas where the river has deposited sand on its own already.â�? But Mother Nature has also created pressure in meeting the 2015 deadline, Jons said. â�?�?Itâ�?�?s not too hard to build sand up out here. The biggest constraint is time,â�? he said. â�?�?We canâ�?�?t build when the birds are here, we canâ�?�?t build during freezing weather. That leaves a couple of months of nice weather in the fall and maybe a month or two in a nasty spring.â�? â�?�?We also donâ�?�?t want bulldozers in the river from the (Gavins Point) dam to Ponca, because it ruins the scenic value,â�? he added. The availability of resources also becomes an issue, Kruse said, pointing to the difficulty of finding contractors with the capability of building the islands. In addition, the Corps needs continual funding from Congress and also works with other agencies, he said. While the sandbars near Vermillion appear successful, itâ�?�?s too early to determine their total impact, Kruse said. â�?�?We donâ�?�?t have any figures to demonstrate these sandbars have caused the overall population to go up or down,â�? he said. â�?�?The population remains strong on the river, in spite of natural sandbars being lost due to vegetation and erosion.â�? However, Jons sees promising trends at the new sandbars, which are also used by other shore birds and turtles. At River Mile 775, the six piping plover nests have seen five hatched and the other still active but not hatched yet. For the least tern, the 23 nests have seen 18 hatched, one still active, one destroyed â�?�? most likely by predators â�?�? and the others with not enough evidence. At River Mile 777, which was sand built in conjunction with the backwater, the 30 piping plover nests had 24 successfully hatched, four that did not hatch and were likely destroyed by predators, and two without enough evidence. For the least tern, the 34 nests had 17 hatched, 12 destroyed, probably by predators, and the rest not enough evidence. â�?�?We are getting closer to the numbers we want to see for the tern to exceed the goal,â�? he said. â�?�?But the trick is that we need to exceed that goal for a certain number of years running before de-listing (as an endangered or threatened species).â�?