Roseate 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 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 does the roseate tern need this level of protection?

Roseate terns are small, graceful seabirds that return each spring to nest and raise their young on a few traditionally used islands along the eastern coast of North America. Although exact historic figures are unknown, it is likely that several hundred pairs once nested in Maine. During the late 1800s, however, roseate tern numbers declined drastically as human-related habitat degradation and unrestricted shooting nearly eliminated the species throughout its range.

Around the turn of the century, state and federal laws were passed to prohibit indiscriminate killing of terns and other migratory birds. At the same time, human influences on coastal islands were decreasing. As a result, roseate tern numbers increased. By the early 1930s, Maine's population had grown to about 275 pairs. Unfortunately, this recovery was not to last. Renewed pressures from habitat loss and human disturbance, combined with predation and competition from a growing gull population, initiated a second decline. By 1987, as few as 52 pairs of roseate terns nested in Maine.

In 1986, the roseate tern was listed as an endangered species under both the United States and Maine Endangered Species Acts. As a result of intensive management efforts, Maine's population grew to approximately 290 pairs but has since declined to a 2010 total of only 170 pairs. Today, roseate terns in Maine nest on just a small handful of islands. After more than 100 years of record-keeping, they have been found on only 22 of the more than 3,500 islands off our coast. These few islands, providing the unique combination of features necessary for successful nesting, are essential to the restoration of roseate terns in Maine. Disturbances or land use changes at these traditional sites can cause nesting failure and consequently prevent the overall population from maintaining its numbers or increasing to recovery levels. For this reason, they are the focus of Essential Habitat designation for roseate terns.

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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 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 and threatened species can be incorporated into preliminary project planning and design. The Department 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 Data Catalog. Contact a MDIFW Regional Wildlife Biologist for assistance in verifying a project location relative to an Essential Habitat.

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If only 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
  • conversion of seasonal dwellings to year round
  • exemption to minimum lot size requirements
  • construction or relocation of roads
  • exploration or extraction of minerals
  • alteration to wetlands, submerged bottomlands, or shoreland zones
  • installation of docks, moorings, or aquaculture facilities

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 repairs to existing structures and utilities
  • emergency activities necessary for public health and safety
  • interior repairs and construction
  • 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 roseate tern nesting areas:

  • seasonal timing of project
  • noise and human activity generated by project before, during, or after completion
  • physical alteration to uplands, waters, or submerged lands
  • impact on key habitat components such as island vegetation, nesting and roosting substrate, and foraging areas
  • increase in human disturbance, predation, or competition with other species
  • demonstrated tolerance of terns at the site to human activity and disturbance
  • reduction in the future suitability of the nesting area for roseate terns

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Is the seasonal timing of projects a major concern?

YES - roseate terns are very sensitive to disturbance during their nesting season. Generally, this is between May 15 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. Examples of projects often acceptable outside the critical nesting season are:

  • expansion, alteration, or repair of existing structures
  • construction, if all other review standards are met

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Once an area is designated as Essential Habitat, will it always be so?

NO - the law allows Essential Habitat designation only for species on Maine's Endangered and Threatened Species List. Designating roseate tern nesting islands as Essential Habitat will allow Maine's roseate tern population to grow. If the species recovers to the point where it is no longer endangered or threatened, all Essential Habitat designations for roseate terns will be eliminated. Also, if an individual nesting area were no longer considered essential to achieving recovery goals for roseate terns, Essential Habitat designation would be removed.

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Who can you contact for more information?

There are seven regional offices to assist you. Please contact a Regional Wildlife Biologist at the nearest regional headquarters.

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