A Great Lakes piping plover at Sauble Beach in 2018. DENIS LANGLOIS/THE SUN TIMES
South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson says she questions whether piping plovers are truly endangered.“A great percentage of our municipality’s residents are seasonal and they’re snowbirds and I hear from the snowbirds that winter in Florida that there’s an abundance of plovers down there. Some of them are tagged with leg bands, but most of them are not,” she said in an interview.“So for that reason, I have to question whether they are actually endangered.”But Andrea Gress, the Ontario piping plover program co-ordinator with Bird Studies Canada, said the tiny shorebirds, which nest annually at Sauble Beach, are “absolutely endangered.”The current estimate of 4,000 pairs worldwide – they nest only in Canada and the United States – is pretty accurate, she said. About 75 nesting pairs of piping plovers resided on the Great Lakes in 2017, but that number dropped to 67 pairs in 2018.“The reason that we see so many of them in Florida is because the Great Lakes piping plovers and the Atlantic piping plovers really like Florida – there’s lots of big beaches, lots of natural areas that they can over-winter in. So it’s very common to see larger flocks of them on those beaches,” she said.Atlantic Canada has a much higher population of piping plovers than the Great Lakes, she added.“So if they’re seeing maybe a flock of 40 of them down in Florida that, by no means, means that they’re not endangered.”The Ontario government announced in January that it is undertaking a review of the Endangered Species Act to “improve protections for species at risk, consider modern and innovative approaches to achieve positive outcomes for species at risk as well as to look for ways to streamline approvals and provide clarity to support economic development.”Jackson said it “would certainly be easier” on the town, as it relates to its efforts to groom and maintain Sauble, if the piping plovers were “downgraded” to, perhaps, a threatened species.“However, we’re still committed to protecting the plovers at Sauble Beach. We’ll always be committed to protecting the plovers at Sauble Beach. It really has nothing to do with the plovers. It has to do with environmental groups that don’t want us to maintain our asset,” she said.Jackson said she believes only piping plovers with leg bands are included in the Ontario count. The rest are “off the radar,” she said, and might be nesting in areas not known to those who track that information.Gress said Bird Studies Canada believes about 95 per cent of piping plovers that nest on the Great Lakes are banded. Birds without the bands are also counted, she said.The organization knows nearly all the beaches where the birds nest in Ontario, she added.“These guys have been studied for 30, 40 years. We know where they’re breeding. So we can get that population data even if they don’t have bands on their legs,” she said.Gress said Bird Studies Canada is concerned about the province’s review of the Ontario Endangered Species Act.“I don’t think they’ll remove piping plovers because, frankly, they’re very endangered. But I am concerned about some of the proposed changes to the act and how those will be implemented and the impacts that’s going to have on not just the piping plovers, but other species at risk here in Ontario,” she said.Piping plovers, an endangered species on the Species at Risk in Ontario list, returned in 2007 to Sauble Beach after a 30-year absence. Pairs of the shorebirds have been nesting and raising their chicks at Sauble each year since.South Bruce Peninsula officials have said the town had been trying for years to get an agreement in writing with the MNRF that would allow the municipality to cultivate and rake the sand at Sauble before the endangered piping plovers arrive for the nesting season and after the shorebirds leave for their southern wintering grounds.Jackson said the town also wants to be able to maintain the beach away from the plovers while the birds are at the beach, while ensuring they are protected.Jackson has said the MNRF, under the previous Liberal government, refused to come to the table to negotiate an agreement in writing.South Bruce Peninsula is scheduled to go to trial in late May to answer to two charges, laid by the Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry under the Endangered Species Act, related to the impact of the town’s beach grooming activities at Sauble Beach.The MNRF laid the charges in 2018, alleging the work during two periods in 2017 damaged the habitat of the piping plover.