LINCOLN — The gradually receding waters of Lake McConaughy have left a band of sand around Nebraska's largest reservoir.
The sand is a magnet for nesting piping plovers and interior least terns, two of the rarest birds in the Great Plains. Both fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
But the miles of beach also attract thousands of campers, who arrive lakeside in four-wheel-drive vehicles to pitch tents, build fires and get away from it all.
The sands of Big Mac have set the stage for a heightened conflict between people and birds — a conflict that could end with closing large sections of the beach to public use.
Federal wildlife managers say they hope to find less-restrictive options. No timetable on closings has been set.
But they say current measures to protect the birds aren't working.
In recent years, field observations have documented nesting mortality rates as high as 78 percent at Lake McConaughy, said Mike George, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Grand Island, Neb.
“I don't even want to soften it: It's killing an endangered species,” George said. “At the end of the day, if that's the only way we can protect the endangered species, we will take steps” to close beaches.
The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which owns the reservoir, doesn't want to see the protected shorebirds struggle for survival. But posting “closed” signs on beaches seems like overkill, said spokesman Jeff Buettner.
“There's a fine line between the big stick wielded by the Endangered Species Act and access to the beaches,” he said. “We hope that a resolution can be found that will not lead to any disruption of the public access.”
Federal officials along with district staff have held recent discussions on the matter with the third major player, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which manages Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors to Lake McConaughy flow cash to the commission as well as businesses around the lake and in nearby Ogallala. Unrestricted beaches open to vehicles and camping are one of the top reasons they come, said Bill Oligmueller, area superintendent.
“Obviously there would be a lot of people who would be disappointed not to have access to the beach,” he said.
Disappointment has given way to anger in several East Coast states where public beaches have been closed to provide a berth for nesting plovers. Such closings have triggered demonstrations by those who advocate for unrestricted beach access.
Even targeted beach closings at Lake McConaughy have the potential to change the lake's recreational character, stoking resentment of endangered species and the federal government. Some might argue that because Lake McConaughy was built by humans, it ought to be managed for humans. The Endangered Species Act also is a human endeavor. “It's the law of the land,” George argued.
When it comes to plover production, closing beaches appears to help. Before closing public beaches at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, refuge managers would document one to three nesting pairs annually. Since the government closed the beaches, an average of 12 pairs have used the refuge each year.
Those with a stake in Lake McConaughy have always engaged in a give-and-take that sometimes resembles a tug-of-war. The reservoir primarily stores water for crop irrigation, but it also generates hydropower and offers some of the state's best fishing and water sports.
In 1998, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensed Lake McConaughy's hydropower project and made endangered species a Central management priority. As a result, the district has assigned technicians and biologists to closely monitor the bowl-like ground nests of terns and plovers.
Nest numbers fluctuate from year to year with the lake level. During drought years, when water receded and exposed more sand, nesting activity increased, producing a peak of 300 nests. Last year, when the lake was nearly full, only 10 nests were documented, George said.
There are currently 19 active plover nests and no tern nests, said Mike Drain, Central's natural resources manager.
The district's biological staff also take steps to protect the birds, which include posting signs near areas commonly used by the birds and giving visitors pamphlets that explain why people need to keep their distance.
District staff also surround clusters of nests with plastic snow fence and place cages over individual nests. They want to not only protect nesting adults and chicks from wild predators, but to keep out dogs and people.
But federal wildlife officials have documented cases where beach users intentionally drove over the fences, George said. One stuck a beer can in a nest and put plover eggs on top of the can, which prevented incubation. Another stole four eggs and replaced them with rocks.
Potential legal sanctions against such activity include civil penalties and criminal charges with fines up to $100,000.
Intentional violations of the Endangered Species Act, however, account for a relatively small percentage of nest mortality, George said. The simply curious can do damage by getting too close and driving away the parent birds. Even more commonly, unsupervised dogs chase and kill adults and chicks, George said.
Regulations require dog owners to use a 6-foot leash at the recreation area, including beaches. Federal wildlife managers have proposed increased enforcement of the regulations as a way to keep the beaches open.
“It might be no more complex than people putting their dogs on a leash,” George said.
Citations for violating the leash law carry a $25 fine plus court costs of just under $50.
But citations are infrequent, said Keith County Attorney Randy Fair, whose jurisdiction includes Lake McConaughy. In the past year, no more than a few leash tickets crossed his desk.
Prosecutions in endangered species cases are even more rare. Jan Sharp, criminal chief with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Omaha, said protected species cases come up from time to time, but his staff was unaware of any involving endangered birds at Lake McConaughy.
“I can't say we haven't done one, but not in recent years,” he said.
In part that's because collecting solid evidence in such cases can be difficult. The county prosecutor offered another reason.
“With the number of people we have coming to McConaughy overall, we really don't have many problems,” Fair said.
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