08 January 2011

Evaluating Options to Create Sandbar Habitat for Terns and Plovers

Adaptive management in a cost-effective manner is the current focus among the options being considered to create sandbar habitat for two bird species along the Missouri River.

During recent public involvement meetings held regarding options to create emergent sandbar habitat, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers have proposed an option that would use adaptive management to provide sufficient breeding places for the endangered interior Least Tern and threatened belted Piping Plover population on the northern Great Plains.

The Corps is currently accepting public input for the draft programmatic environmental impact statement for the mechanical creation and maintenance of emergent sandbar habitat along the Missouri River from northern Nebraska to eastern Montana. There are five particular reaches: Fort Peck, Garrison Dam, Fort Randall Dam, Lewis and Clark Lake west of Gavins Point dam, and the Gavins Point reach below the dam.

Rather than establishing a fixed amount of habitat which would be created, adaptive management would be used to create nesting habitat, evaluate results and then proceed accordingly to achieve the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service goals of a sustainable population for both species.

The proposed option would progressively add acres of sandbar habitat and the results would then be monitored to see how the terns and plovers respond, said Cindy Upah, project manager for the emergent sandbar habitat PEIS. This would "deal with the uncertainty of what the birds need, allow flexibility in implementing the program and reduce costs."

This option - if chosen - would initially supplement up to 1315 acres of sandbar habitat. An essential part of the effort would include evaluating other management options, including mechanical clearing of vegetation from sandbars and use of geotubes.

Additional habitat is required as the extent of emergent sandbar habitat has declined from a peak of about 6000 acres in 1998 to ca. 1110 acres in the five river reaches in 2010, according to Corps figures.

If the initial measures were not sufficient to meet the goal for numbers of plovers and nesting success of terns, additional habitat would be created.

The cost of the initial effort would be approximately $6.7 million, according to the Corps. The agency currently spends $6 million on habitat creation and maintenance.

"Adaptive management is a good step and a good strategy," said Mike George, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Grand Island, said at the Omaha public involvement meeting. "Incrementally building habitat is a good way to go and makes sure the efforts are working. It also puts the critters first."

"Creating habitat is expensive," George said, "but it is a cost of doing business along the river" which is managed for many different public uses and provides billions of dollars in benefits associated with flood control, generating hydro-power and navigation, for example.

Figures from the draft PEIS.

"We need to meet the birds’ needs in a cost-effective manner," said Upah, adding that the agency appreciated that people attended the public meetings. "We are glad to have an opportunity to hear comments" regarding the river and its management. The largest turnout was at Yankton, she said.

At the meetings, Corps officials presented maps of the riverine regions, which in particular along the Missouri National Recreation River, have other recognized uses that need to be considered, so only certain portions of the channel are suitable sites for creating habitat.

Thus far, the Corps has created about 600 acres in the reach of the river below Gavins Point Dam to near Ponca State Park, about 300 acres at river mile 827 and an additional 40 acres near the confluence of the Niobrara River.

The Corps is required to manage the Missouri River for threatened and endangered species because of the Endangered Species Act and the findings of a biological opinion issued in 2003.

The final public meetings were held January 5 in Omaha and January 6, in Kansas City.

About 15 people, in addition to Corps staff and representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service were also present.

Three people presented testimony in favor of the proposed effort, with two residents from the Verdel area expressing concern over the drastic change in riverine conditions in their area due to the aggradation of the channel due to sediment deposition.

The Corps will continue to accept public comments through February 22, 2011.

Copies of the draft PEIS statement – a document comprising nearly 1200 pages and 3-4 inches thick – are available online (16.5 mb PDF).

A final EIS will then be prepared and be made available for final public review, according to Upah. The final version of the document should be completed by the end of the summer, 2011.