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Piping plover return to Great Lakes, spark discussion on protection

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The first piping plover to return to the Great Lakes region was reported at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week. Advocates met today to discuss the endangered bird and policies that could improve protection.

A century ago, there were up to 800 piping plover pairs across the Great Lakes. But industrial development and increased shoreline use brought that number down to 17 pairs in the 80s.

Shoreline protection efforts have helped the plovers recover. Now, we’re at around 75 breeding pairs, but that’s still only half the number of birds needed to achieve conservation goals.

Vince Cavalieri is a wildlife biologist at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. He described the piping plover as an “umbrella species,” meaning that its protection also serves the health of coastal dune ecosystems.

“While just a very rare small bird, it really has an outsize importance in protecting the rare Great Lakes ecosystem,” Cavalieri said.

Cavalieri said people can protect the tiny piper by keeping dogs leashed, picking up trash, and keeping their distance from the birds.

The piping plover is highly reliant on Great Lakes coastal dunes for breeding and rearing chicks.

Megan Tinsley, a water policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council, said shoreline protection policies are pivotal in protecting the bird. She said protections in the Critical Dunes Act were rolled back over a decade ago, but the law now needs to be revisited and strengthened.

“We're interested in making changes on how we approach dunes,” Tinsley said. “So, we’re looking at not putting development as close to the dunes because they're dynamic. They need to change and shift with time. We don't need to lock into place where the dune features are right now.”

Some examples of general shoreline protection policies include setback rules, bans on coastal armoring (like building sea walls), and barring nearby development.

For more information about the MEC’s work on coastal protection, visit their website here. To watch the full recording with Cavalieri and Tinsley, visit the MEC YouTube channel.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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