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Wednesday, November 30, 2022

County in north end permit stalemate

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It has been more than two years since New Hanover County officials asked to drop a permit requiring wildlife monitoring at the north end of Wrightsville Beach, and there is still no final decision on the proposal some wildlife advocates say is unwise.

Mason Inlet was moved 3,000 feet north in 2002. The permit required the county to protect wildlife near the inlet. To ensure that was happening, the county was required to monitor the wildlife and its habitat for 30 years.

Two years ago, the county asked to be relieved of that requirement. County officials want the Army Corps of Engineers to modify the permit: change continual monitoring to take place only during years when maintenance dredging of the inlet occurs.

The county’s position is that 10 years of monitoring showed that, taken as a whole, the project “has not had a significant negative effect” on wildlife, said Layton Bedsole, the county’s shore protection coordinator. Turtles, birds, fish and fish nurseries have been subject to monitoring.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not ready to let the county off the hook. Kathy Matthews, a biologist with the federal agency, said a compromise is possible. The agency recommends leaving in place some, but not all, of the requirements, she said.

“I think we have scaled back quite a bit on what we are asking them to do,” Matthews said.

County and Corps officials have been negotiating proposed changes. New Hanover County is still not satisfied with all of Fish and Wildlife’s recommendations, but officials are waiting to see that agency’s recommendation alongside the revised permit from the Corps.

The local Audubon Society chapter is not enthusiastic about the requested changes. Lindsay Addison, a biologist with the local chapter, said monitoring and protection are linked. The best way to show whether a project has an impact on wildlife is to monitor the population, she said.

The Audubon group had a contract with the county to monitor shorebirds and their habitat until 2013, when the county canceled it.

Although the county asserts there have been no significant negative effects of moving the inlet, that may not be the case with shorebirds.

Because sand on the inlet has remained stable since the 2002 project, dense vegetation has taken root, making the area less hospitable to some types of nesting shorebirds, such as the least tern. In 2008, observers with the Audubon Society spotted 400 pairs of nesting terns, Addison said. By 2013, the last year the Audubon group had a contract with the county to do the monitoring, there were 18 pairs.

Similar declines were seen in the black skimmer population, Addison said.

“That is largely a function of the habitat becoming vegetated,” she said, noting the shorebirds prefer open, flat, sandy areas for nesting. Periodic erosion actually helps shorebird habitat, she said.

But Addison also worries the habitat that exists is not being properly protected. The county erected mobile barriers to prevent people from walking through nesting sites, but they need to be moved and enlarged as some birds nest outside the roped-off area, she said.

Recent surveys by the Audubon chapter have found the barriers aren’t being moved as new birds move in.

“Every year the habitat’s different,” Addison said. Frequent monitoring and occasional moving of barriers are needed to ensure that nests aren’t left unprotected, where people might inadvertently trample them, she said.

“The past two nesting seasons, we have noticed that the [barrier] doesn’t enclose all the nests there,” Addison said. “The protection the birds are receiving is not as good as it could be.”

While the request is pending, the county must continue to monitor the habitat under Fish and Wildlife’s biological review of the proposed changes, said Kyle Dahl, a special projects manager with the Corps of Engineers. He did not have an estimate as to when a decision would be made on the permit, but he said he does not expect to hold a public hearing on the changes.

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