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Piping plover suit prompts judge to suspend Fire Island dune project

Sand fences and orange markers just east of

Sand fences and orange markers just east of the campgrounds outline the beginnings of an extensive area blocked off because of nesting grounds of piping plovers. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

A federal judge Friday suspended Fire Island's federal dune project, granting a temporary restraining order sought by Audubon New York, which claims the plans imperil endangered piping plovers by destroying nesting grounds.

U.S. District Judge Sandra J. Feuerstein's order prevents the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from starting work on the project's first two phases -- at Smith Point County Park and Fire Island Lighthouse Beach.

The restraining order does not halt the third phase, which rebuilds dunes aimed at protecting the barrier island's communities, the conservation group said.

"Our concerns center around work planned on parkland," Erin Crotty, Audubon New York's executive director, said in a statement. "These areas provide rare nesting and foraging habitat that is essential to the survival of the Atlantic Coast piping plover."

The lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York also charges that the Army Corps failed to fully address concerns about the new dunes' ability to shield the South Shore of Long Island.

The targets of the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Interior, Army Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service, declined to comment Friday on pending litigation. The next hearing was set for Oct. 8.

Army Corps spokesman Christopher Gardner said the agency coordinated its final plans with all of its partner agencies and included their "refinements."

The dunes planned for Fire Island, 13 to 15 feet high, would stretch about 19 miles. Dredging of 7 million cubic yards of sand was expected to start soon for the first phase.

Last year, the number of piping plovers slid 32 percent to 397 pairs in the New York-New Jersey breeding area. They are protected as endangered and threatened by the federal government and both states.

The migratory midgets, only 7 inches long, got a bit of help from superstorm Sandy. The October 2012 storm created about 400 acres of overwash areas on Fire Island -- wide, flat beaches that serve as prime nesting grounds. At least 207 of those acres lie where the Army Corps plans to build the dunes, the lawsuit states.

According to the Audubon Society, the new dunes would be too high for newly hatched piping plovers to climb so that they can forage in the ocean.

The Army Corps plans to build about 100 acres of new nesting grounds on the island, as well as temporary pools for the birds. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Tylar Greene said Friday in an email: "We are pleased with the Corps' commitment to create a significant amount of habitat for piping plovers."

The lawsuit says Fish and Wildlife's final report approving the project omitted its initial objections that the plans were "too experimental" to be relied upon.

The group also blasts the Army Corps for justifying the dunes as a way to protect the mainland, saying that notion is disputed by the U.S. Geological Survey and a coastal geologist.

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