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Fighting for Critical Habitat for the Piping Plover

Piping plover adult, by Mathew Schwartz

“Canada’s Ocean Playground” has a problem. Our coastline is increasingly developed into private vacation homes and tourism attractions, while local access, traditional use, and wildlife habitat are pushed to the side. Nova Scotia has 13,000 km of coastline and sea levels are expected to rise at least 1 m over the next 80 years. Over 70% of Nova Scotians live in these quickly changing coastal communities, but we aren’t alone. We share these unforgiving seascapes with an increasingly threatened biodiversity, including species like the quintessential piping plover.

The 2019 State of Canada’s Birds report estimates a national historic loss of 40-60% of our shorebirds since 1970. Residential and commercial development, ATV use, off-leash dogs, high density recreational beach use, climate change-related disturbances, and terrestrial and marine pollution all threaten coastal species and many of these threats are growing in Nova Scotia.

Over a third of the global piping plover population breeds in Canada. There are two subpopulations, one made up by the melodus subspecies on the Atlantic coast and other by the circumcinctus subspecies in the prairies and great lakes region. The melodus population that resides in Nova Scotia and other Atlantic provinces was placed on SARA’s Schedule 1, which is the official list of all species at risk in Canada, in 2003, after and was listed as Endangered by the Nova Scotia government shortly after. Though plovers in the Maritimes are generally fairing better than their counterparts in central Canada, with 60 breeding pairs noted in 2023, there may only be 400 or so plovers total in the Atlantic population today.

As part of the Recovery Planning process for species like the piping plover, government must identify an area of Critical Habitat: “habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species.” Though this identification does not necessarily result in meaningful protection of the described habitat, as the discretion to designate Critical Habitat (or Core Habitat at the provincial level) and do something to protect it lies with the Minister, it does mean that the strategy document must recommend actions related to Critical Habitat protection, and government is responsible for completing these actions.

In the 2022 update to the federal piping plover Recovery Strategy, government adopted a “bounding box” approach to habitat identification, meaning that instead of protecting the whole beach for piping plover habitat, as was the prescription previously, only small areas that meet a certain set of criteria will be recommended for protection.

The original strategy, released in 2012, identified 212 entire beaches across Atlantic Canada and Quebec as critical habitat. The new strategy protects only ~40 and only in the 1×1 km squares used by the bounding box method, and then only under certain biophysical attributes.

So, Nova Scotian naturalists are going back to court…
Ecojustice, on behalf of East Coast Environmental Law and Nature Nova Scotia, launched a judicial review in late 2022 of the federal government’s weakened approach to habitat identification for piping plovers. A win in this case could see the government revert to the more comprehensive way it identified habitat for plovers in 2012.

We argue that this new approach makes enforcement, and consequently protection, of beach habitats more difficult and leaves unprotected areas of sandy beaches open for development and construction.

Beaches change over time, sometimes dramatically. Plovers like to nest in the disturbed areas where sand and small rocks have accumulated, so when an event like Hurricane Fiona happens and that disturbed areas shifts, the plovers returning next year will move with the beach and nest in areas where there is suitable habitat.

What happens when the biophysical attributes necessary for plover habitat are pushed outside of the bounding box identified in this new Recovery Strategy? Or when an inexperienced plover pair decides they’re going to nest in the less desirable gravel? Are these habitats not important enough to protect from development and other stressors now?

The change in the federal strategy holds concerning consequences for provincial protections too. Nova Scotia adopts Critical Habitat as outlined in in the federal strategy, in lieu of identifying our own Core Habitat. In a province where the coast already faces such high development pressure and our government has a reputation for secret public land sales, weakened federal protections for the piping plover puts the entire Atlantic population at risk.

Follow along as we prepare to battle for habitat protection.

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