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Piping plover spraying plan irks environmentalists

A sign lets visitors know that they should

A sign lets visitors know that they should not enter a restricted area at Smith Point County Park where birds are nesting, May 17, 2017. Credit: Uli Seit

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has provoked complaints from environmentalists with a plan to begin spraying herbicides on Fire Island in Suffolk’s Smith Point County Park this fall to create sparsely vegetated habitat for the piping plover.

The proposal would kill vegetation around the dunes using the herbicide glyphosate to create the preferred nesting and foraging grounds for the tiny shorebirds, according to an application the Army Corps filed with Suffolk County in December. Federal and state authorities have designated the plovers as threatened.

A pilot plan for the Corps to treat about 30 vegetated acres of dune grass and phragmites, a nonnative reed, was ratified May 3 by a county committee that regulates the use of pesticides on county-owned property.

The panel in February blocked a broader Corps plan to treat 173 acres in the park, although not all the acres have vegetation.

The Corps missed an April 1 deadline to spray this spring. The agency will apply the pesticides in the fall and next spring, said Corps spokesman James D’Ambrosio.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said, “We were appalled” by the original 173-acre proposal. Esposito’s group, based in Farmingdale, has a representative on the pesticide management committee.

Esposito said de-vegetating the 173 acres could reduce the stability of dunes. Spraying also could harm other plants and animals on land and in waterways, she said.

The original Army Corps plan was “way too cavalier about destroying vegetation on a dune system, not only for stability but for ecological health,” Esposito said.

Esposito called the smaller pilot plan a “reasonable compromise to offer some protection for a threatened species to survive.”

The Army Corps said it needs to spray because of a $207 million dune strengthening project between Fire Island Inlet and Moriches Inlet that has prevented breaches and overwashes that keep down vegetation.

“This unintended consequence has the potential to adversely affect the Piping Plover population within the project area,” D’Ambrosio said in an email. He said the spraying program would not cause dune erosion.

The approved spraying plan allows the Army Corps, which is acting at the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to treat portions of two sites. It originally had sought to spray at five locations. Spraying will now occur along the ocean side in the Great Gunn area to kill any vegetation present, and on the bay side at New Made Island to remove phragmites, according to Suffolk County planning director Sarah Lansdale. The approval also limits how much pesticide the federal government can use.

Federal officials said they attempted in 2014 and 2015 to remove vegetation without using herbicides, but the plants persevered.

In one area, the agency used heavy machinery to scrape away the vegetation, which grew back. In another location, the Corps placed a heavy tarp over the plants.

“This effort was not successful as the vegetation was able to grow through the tarp and keeping the edges from getting blown up was a factor as well,” Peter Wempler, chief of the environmental branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, said in an application letter to Suffolk County.

“It has been documented that mechanical vegetation removal without herbicide application will not and has not worked,” Wempler said.

Jillian Liner, director of conservation for Audubon New York, which had sued the federal government for failing to adequately protect piping plovers, said that the group supports the use of herbicides in some cases.

“Audubon New York can be supportive of the use of herbicides as a last resort when other methods are not successful,” Liner said in an interview. The suit has been settled.

Suffolk County officials said they expect the federal government to reapply next year for the full 173-acre project, but D’Ambrosio would not say whether the Corps will seek the permission. The Corps will have to ask the Suffolk committee again next year for permission to spray, county officials said.

Suffolk Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), whose district includes Smith Point County Park, said he wants the federal government to reconsider its spraying plan.

“I think it’s counterintuitive and counterproductive to de-vegetate the dunes. The dune grass is the best natural resource we have to build up the dunes,” Calarco said. The dunes “are vital to protect the barrier island, which protects the mainland,” he said.

Over the years, piping plover protection efforts have frustrated off-roaders and surf-casting fishermen in Suffolk, who complained of reduced recreational opportunities.

Esposito said her group has supported piping plover preservation efforts, including participating in bird counts and providing volunteers on the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays to protect dune nesting areas from revelers.

But Esposito complained that the use of pesticides to aid plovers effectively protects one species more than others, Esposito said.

An EPA draft study in December found that glyphosate is “not likely” to be carcinogenic to humans.

The World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen for humans, but critics said contrary evidence was ignored or omitted.

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