by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel
The interior least tern almost disappeared from the landscape by the time it was added to the federal endangered species list in 1985. One reason was that they don’t hide their nests, but foolishly build them right out on open beaches, sand and gravel bars where any predator can readily find them. Their main salvation was that both the eggs and the chicks look a lot like sand and gravel, a common form of camouflage in nature. Even so, numerous ground-nesting bird species have gone extinct because of predators eating their eggs. However, interior least terns had one additional defense, back in the days when rivers ran freely and flooded often. The sand bars were often surrounded by water on all sides, so many predators could not reach their nests.
The modern era changed that, as many major rivers were contained by levees and dikes, and rechanneled to prevent flooding. Devastating floods along the Mississippi and its tributaries cost lives and destroyed crops for decades before government flood control projects finally began to control the rivers — and stop the very cycles that protected the interior least tern. By 1985 there were perhaps fewer than 1,000 of the birds left, and only a few dozen nesting sites.
The Army Corps of Engineers was given the task of protecting interior least tern nesting sites, along with several fish species affected by the changes in river flows, and the result has been miraculous. Changes to river structures allowed more of the original flooding cycles, and the interior least tern population grew to more than 18,000, with almost 500 known nesting sites in 18 states across the Great Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley. Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska spent 30 years actively protecting habitat and became vital partners in the recovery. The effort also included dozens of regional government offices, 15 other states, and numerous nonprofit groups, industries, and universities. At least 30 separate groups got involved in monitoring the birds. On Jan. 12, the federal government officially removed the interior least tern from the endangered list, something that almost never happens.