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Home > Wildlife > Species Information > Maine Endangered Species Program > Essential Wildlife Habitat > Introduction > Piping Plover/Least Tern Nesting Sites
Maine Endangered Species Program/Piping Plover and Least Tern Nesting Sites
Essential Habitat: Piping Plover and Least Tern nesting, feeding, and brood-rearing areas
Maine's fish and wildlife are a valuable public resource, yet some species are in danger of becoming extinct within the State. The Legislature recognized this by passing the Maine Endangered Species Act in 1975. In 1988, the Legislature amended the Act by adding habitat protection provisions in recognition of two issues: 1) the effect habitat loss has on endangered and threatened species in Maine; and 2) the confusion and sometimes costly problems that arise in the absence of consistent, predictable land use decision-making processes for endangered and threatened species. As a result, the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) may designate areas as "Essential Habitat" and develop protection guidelines for these Essential Habitats.
What are Essential Habitats?
Why do the Piping Plover and Least Tern need this level of protection?
Habitat loss and lack of undisturbed nest sites are two of the primary factors jeopardizing populations of piping plovers and least terns. Historically, Maine had more than 30 miles of suitable nesting beaches that may have supported up to 200 pairs of piping plovers and 1200 pairs of least terns. However, the construction of seawalls, jetties, piers, homes, parking lots, and other structures along Maine's sand beaches has reduced the amount of suitable nesting habitat available to these species by more than 75%. Today, only about a dozen sites provide suitable habitat where these two species nest, feed, and raise their young. The capability of this remaining habitat to support nesting plovers and terns is further reduced by continued development and intense recreational use. Ensuring the availability of this limited habitat is essential for the continued existence of piping plovers and least terns in Maine. Designation of these areas as Essential Habitat (on-going since 1995) will help to maintain the last remaining habitat for these endangered birds.
What does Essential Habitat designation mean to a landowner?
Activities of private landowners are not affected by Essential Habitat designation unless projects require a permit or license from, or are funded or carried out by, a state agency or municipality. In these cases, the town or state agency reviewing the project must obtain an evaluation from MDIFW before issuing a final decision. No additional permits or fees are required. Designation of Essential Habitat simply establishes a standardized review process within existing state and municipal permitting processes. It ensures landowners of consistent reviews on land use permit applications where endangered and threatened species are involved, and eliminates the confusion, delays, and sometimes costly problems that can arise in the absence of standardized, predictable decision-making.
Landowners considering projects within Essential Habitats should initiate early consultations with the appropriate MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist, so that concerns for endangered or threatened species can be incorporated into preliminary project planning and design. When projects also fall within areas governed by Maine's coastal sand dune laws, all requirements of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and sand dune laws must be met before MDIFW will consider the project. MDIFW also offers technical assistance to property owners who wish to manage their lands to enhance habitat for wildlife.
What does Essential Habitat designation mean to state agencies and municipalities?
State agencies and municipalities shall not permit, license, fund, or carry out projects that will significantly alter an Essential Habitat or violate protection guidelines adopted for the habitat. An evaluation of the final project proposal must be obtained from MDIFW prior to issuing a decision. Before seeking formal MDIFW evaluation, concerns for endangered and threatened species should be addressed during preliminary planning and existing agency or municipal review procedures. Consulting early with MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologists will facilitate identification of incompatible projects or appropriate modifications to proposals within an Essential Habitat. Failure to do so may result in unnecessary conflicts, delays, or project denials. The Department also offers guidance to municipalities when wildlife concerns are being addressed in comprehensive plans and town ordinances.
How do you determine if a project is within an Essential Habitat?
All Essential Habitats are mapped on sections of 1:24,000 U.S.G.S. topographic maps and indexed by town name. In addition, "Boundary Line Detail Photos" have been prepared for all developed beach areas on 1:9,200 color aerial photos. These photos depict the precise boundaries of piping plover and least tern Essential Habitats in relation to existing houses, roads, seawalls and other physical features. Maps and photos are available from all MDIFW and affected town offices, or they can be viewed and printed from MDIFW's website at Maine Endangered Species Program Essential Wildlife Habitat. Digital coverage can also be downloaded from the Maine Office of GIS at megis.maine.gov. Contact an MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance in verifying a project location relative to an Essential Habitat.
If only a part of your property is within an Essential Habitat, will every project you consider be affected by Essential Habitat designation?
No. Projects located wholly outside an Essential Habitat, regardless of whether some other portion of your property is within an Essential Habitat, are not affected by this rule.
What types of projects require MDIFW evaluation?
Are there projects exempt from MDIFW review?
Yes. The following are examples of projects exempt from evaluation by MDIFW:
What are the review standards for projects within Essential Habitats?
A project must not significantly alter an Essential Habitat. If the MDIFW evaluation determines that significant alteration of the habitat would occur, a state agency or municipal government shall not issue a permit or license for the project. The following factors are considered by MDIFW when evaluating a project proposal at piping plover and least tern nesting, feeding, and brood-rearing areas:
Is the seasonal timing of projects a major concern?
Yes! Piping plovers and least terns are sensitive to disturbance during their nesting season. Generally, this is between May 1 and August 31 but may vary slightly from year to year. Seasonal timing of activities will often be a determining factor in project reviews and should always be addressed in a project's design before seeking final MDIFW evaluation. Contact an MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance in determining seasonal timing concerns.
Will beaches within Essential Habitats continue to be open for swimming and sunbathing?
Yes! Some of our most popular State Parks (i.e. Reid and Popham Beach) are also successful tern and plover nesting areas. They provide examples of how, if managed properly, plovers, terns and existing recreational uses of beaches can coexist.
Could Essential Habitat designation be used to prevent rebuilding of storm or fire damaged structures or seawalls?
No. This rule is not intended to preclude rebuilding of existing structures in accordance with implementation of the coastal sand dune regulations. Furthermore, emergency repairs to utilities and structures, including seawalls, are exempt from this rule.
Once an area is designated as Essential Habitat, will it always be so?
Not Necessarily. The Law allows Essential Habitat designation only for species on Maine's Endangered and Threatened Species List. Designating piping plover and least tern nesting, feeding, and brood-rearing areas as Essential Habitat will allow Maine's piping plover and least tern populations to grow. If these species recover to the point where they are no longer endangered or threatened, all Essential Habitat designations will be eliminated. Also, if an individual area were no longer considered essential to achieving recovery goals for the species, Essential Habitat designation would be removed.
Who can you contacts for more information?
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Please contact an MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist at the nearest regional headquarters.
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