WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation recently signed a letter urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend the public comment period on a proposal to designate hundreds of thousands of acres, including 150 miles of North Carolina beaches, as “critical habitat” for the rufa red knot.
The bird, a robin-sized sandpiper with a wingspan of about 20 inches and a ruddy head, visits North Carolina in the spring during their annual 10,000-mile migration from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian arctic.
USFWS on July 15 proposed establishing critical habitat for the bird in many states, including all oceanfront Bogue, Core and Shackleford banks beaches. Other North Carolina areas proposed as critical habitat for the rufa red knot are beaches of Hatteras Island in Dare County, Ocracoke Island in Hyde County, Topsail Beach in Pender County, Fort Fisher in New Hanover County and Sunset Beach/Bird Island in Brunswick County.
The letter, to Martha Williams, Principal Deputy Director of USFWS, is signed by U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, plus U.S. Reps. Greg Murphy and David Rouzer.
It states that, “The 259-page proposed rule to designate critical habitat for the federally threatened rufa red knot under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is a complex proposal that has the potential to impact hundreds of communities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
“In total, approximately 649,066 acres are proposed for critical habitat designation in 13 states, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas,” the letter continues. “The proposed designation impacts portions of 61 counties or pa1ishes in these states. Local governments, states, and stakeholders in areas proposed for designation need sufficient time to understand how the proposed rule will impact their communities.
“North Carolina coastal interests in particular need additional time to understand how potential special management considerations or protections may impact ongoing or anticipated actions, including but not limited to shoreline stabilization, disaster response and recovery, and dredging, among the many activities outlined in the proposed rule that may require special management considerations or protections.”
The signees ask USFWS to extend the public comment period from Monday, Sept. 13 by at least 30 days, but preferably 60 days to Saturday, Nov. 13.
They say the communities and stakeholders “need sufficient time to understand, review, and develop comments on the methodology and data used to identify proposed critical habitat areas, the details of which are not included in the proposed rule itself but rather as attachments or references to the proposed rule. It is critical that impacted government entities and interested stakeholders have sufficient time to review the information and data provided by the Service so they can develop appropriate and actionable feedback on the proposed rule.”
During a virtual public hearing in August, most speakers, from the northeast U.S. where the red rufa knot historically has been more commonly seen than in North Carolina, spoke in favor of critical habitat designation.
Carteret County has not yet commented but plans to do so in writing soon and is urging municipalities to also respond to the proposal before the deadline.
Greg Rudolph, manager of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, which oversees not just beach nourishment and dredging projects but also the county’s responses to federal environmental and conservation proposals, said he’s definitely concerned, particularly in light of the comparatively small numbers of the birds that come here.
According to the USFWS website, critical habitat designation “does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve or other conservation area.” However, it requires all federal agencies, in consultation with USFWS, ensure “any action they authorize, fund, or carry out is not likely to result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.”
Mr. Rudolph said that is still at best worrisome for some county activities.
In an email Monday, he said, he and others want USFWS to revisit its methodology, “considering the entire stretch of N.C. coastline from Bogue Inlet to Oregon Inlet is a 150 miles of continuous stretch of critical habitat. That’s a hard pill for anyone to swallow and justify.”
Impacts of critical habitat, according to Mr. Rudolph, “potentially include activities or programs of any kind authorized, funded, or carried out, in whole or in part by federal agencies pertaining to coastal and inlet management activities, the National Flood Insurance Program, implementation of building codes, federal grants for public access and infrastructure improvements, and other programs/policies.”
In its Federal Register posting of the habitat areas, USFWS states the birds “depend on multiple foraging and roosting habitat areas on local, regional, and range-wide scales.
It also states the birds’ shore habitat is threatened by rising sea level and shoreline stabilization.
To send written comments to USFWS by email, o to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: www.regulations.gov. In the Search box, enter FWS-R5-ES-2021-0032. Click on the search button. On the resulting page, in the search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, check the Proposed Rule box to locate this document. Comment by clicking on “Comment Now!”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.