Piping Plover and Least Tern Nesting Sites


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 [MESA] 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.

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What are Essential Habitats?

Essential Habitats are areas currently or historically providing physical or biological features essential to the conservation of an endangered or threatened species in Maine and which may require special management considerations. Examples of areas that could qualify for designation are nest sites or important feeding areas. For some species, protection of these kinds of habitats is vital to preventing further declines or achieving recovery goals. This habitat protection tool is used only when habitat loss has been identified as a major factor limiting species recovery. Before an area can be designated as Essential Habitat, it must be identified and mapped by MDIFW and adopted through public rulemaking procedures, following Maine's Administrative Procedures Act.

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Why do the piping plover and least tern need this level of protection?

The piping plover is a small, sandy-colored shorebird that nests on beaches from Newfoundland to South Carolina. The least tern is the smallest North American tern and nests on beaches along the East and West Coasts. Both species are imperiled throughout much of their range in the United States and Canada. Once common on sand beaches in southern Maine, the piping plover and least tern are now listed as endangered under the Maine Endangered Species Act. The East Coast population of piping plovers is also federally listed as threatened.

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.

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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.

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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.

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How do you determine if a project is within an Essential Habitat?

All Essential Habitats are mapped on satellite imagery and are indexed by a map grid. Official maps are filed at the Secretary of State's office, and copies of official maps are available from all MDIFW and affected town offices. Advisory maps can be viewed and printed from MDIFW's website. Digital coverage can also be downloaded from the Maine Office of GIS website. Contact a MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance in verifying a project location relative to an Essential Habitat.

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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.

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What types of projects require MDIFW evaluation?

Any project that is wholly or partly within an Essential Habitat and is permitted, licensed, funded, or carried out by a state agency or municipal government, requires an evaluation by the Commissioner of MDIFW. Some examples of projects that require MDIFW evaluation are:

  • subdivision of land
  • construction or alteration of buildings, wastewater systems, or utilities
  • exemption to minimum lot size requirements
  • construction or relocation of roads
  • dredging, bulldozing, or removing or displacing soil, sand, vegetation, or other materials
  • alteration to wetlands, submerged bottomlands, or shoreland zones
  • installation of docks, moorings, or aquaculture facilities
  • beach nourishment or dune restoration
  • state or municipal beach recreation management

Landowners, project planners, municipalities or state agencies considering a project proposal in or near an Essential Habitat should immediately contact a MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance. Early consultations will help to resolve avoidable conflicts and prevent unnecessary delays, frustrations, and economic pitfalls that might otherwise arise during the final project review.

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Are there projects exempt from MDIFW review?

YES - the following are examples of projects exempt from evaluation by MDIFW:

  • emergency activities necessary for public health and safety
  • emergency repairs to existing utilities and structures, including seawalls and roads
  • any project not carried out by, funded by, or requiring a permit or license from a state agency or municipality

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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:

  • seasonal timing and magnitude of project
  • degradation of coastal wetlands or sand dune systems
  • increase in human disturbance, predation, or competition from other species
  • reduction in the future capability of the habitat to provide nesting, feeding, and brood-rearing opportunities

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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 a MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance in determining seasonal timing concerns.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Who can you contact for more information?

Please contact a MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist at the nearest regional headquarters.

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