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More piping plovers would be harmed by planned Fire Island dune, but Fish & Wildlife still backs project

A piping plover guards its nest outside an

A piping plover guards its nest outside an "exclosure" on the outer beach at Smith Point Park in June 2013. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

New U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service findings increase the estimated loss of endangered piping plovers to a planned Fire Island dune, but the agency still supports the federal flood-control project.

About 16 nesting pairs would be lost because of the 13- to 15-foot-high dunes, up from an earlier estimate of 11 pairs, according to a report released Wednesday.

But the agency also cited evidence of a slight rebound in the plover population. More fledglings survived last summer -- 1.5 for each of the eight nesting pairs spotted, the highest ratio since 2006, the report said.

The agency initially opposed the dune project, maintaining the resulting loss of beach habitat threatened the migratory birds' survival.

Paul Phifer, the Fish & Wildlife regional director who wrote the reports, said he reversed course after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to create more nesting grounds and spend $10.5 million over 10 years on plover monitoring and other safeguards.

"It doesn't happen often," Phifer said Thursday of the agency's changed stance. "There might be disagreements, but I think that's healthy and natural."

Fish & Wildlife's revised calculations on plover impacts were made after the Audubon Society of New York filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the project.

The Army Corps planned to begin reinforcing the barrier island with 19 miles of dunes last month, but U.S. District Judge Sandra Feuerstein issued a temporary restraining order in September suspending the $207 million project along a 3-mile stretch of public parkland.

Audubon New York has argued that Fish & Wildlife relied too heavily on "experimental," man-made habitat for the plovers.

The nonprofit argues that the dunes would be too high to climb for chicks, who must hunt for food within hours of hatching.

The group also criticized the Army Corps for justifying the dunes as protection for the South Shore, saying that assertion is disputed by the U.S. Geological Survey and a coastal geologist.

Because more storm-protection projects are planned, Phifer sees man-made habitat as an essential protection for plovers and other species.

"We're going to need to be able to do this . . . not just on Fire Island, but all over Long Island," he said.

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