HABITAT AND HUMANITY
Lyman-Richey Corporation’s nation-leading, landmark partnership with conservation agencies helps balance the lives of endangered birds and our sand and gravel businesses.
By BRADY JONES
If you didn’t know any better, the little cups in the sand wouldn’t mean anything to you — just small, almost unnoticeable dimples across the ground.
You probably wouldn’t really notice the critters scurrying here and there, either — just background action amid all the natural and industrial activity around the water.
But Mary Brown notices.
It’s her job to notice – literally.
And in the middle of spring you would notice the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources professor and her team of students around some of our sand and gravel locations, on a mission to monitor and count the piping plover and least tern populations that have found the perfect nesting ground on our sand.
“We see it as a kind of economic argument,” said Brown, program coordinator of the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership. “You guys need to do what you need to do — you need to make sand, and that’s making jobs and revenue and stuff. And then the birds need to have their fair play. Their revenue, economics, or income are eggs and baby birds.
“So we get you guys your economic return, and we get the birds their economic return.”
A large part of this story begins in a time and place far away from us — both literally and culturally.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, bird feathers, like those of the least terns, were all the rage.
They adorned women’s hats in all sorts of arrangements, from the smallest of feather details to entire birds — yes, fully dead and taxidermied birds — perched atop the heads of some of the highest of high society in New York City and London.
But their popularity also meant devastating consequences for the bird populations. Before long some species were being hunted to near extinction.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, conservationists in high places like William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Society at the time, began to take note and speak out.
“It was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by the plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the growth and expansion of the U.S. population and agriculture industry westward into the Great Plains began to destroy the habitats of many species of animals, including the piping plovers, whose homes along river sandbars were lost when rivers were altered for irrigation and reservoirs.
Alarmed by these developments, two cousins — Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall — began what would become the National Audubon Society. They implored their friends and acquaintances to boycott the feathered hats and lobbied Congress to pass legislation.
The Lacey Act (introduced by Iowa Republican Representative John Lacey in 1900) was the first legislative effort to curb the fashion industry by prohibiting the hunting of animals in one state for sale in another.
In the end, the law couldn’t stem the killing and sale of migratory birds, but it is still used today to prevent the introduction and/or spread of dangerous non-native plant and animal species.
Thirteen years later, the Weeks-McLean Act was passed, making the spring hunting and marketing of migratory bird feathers for fashion outright illegal.
Because of constitutional problems with how the act was passed, it was replaced with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which is still in effect today.
Originally between the United States and Canada/United Kingdom, the act has been expanded to include Mexico, Japan, and Russia.
And the protections have been extended beyond the birds themselves to include their habitats as well.
In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed by the Democratic Congress and signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon.
The bipartisan legislation’s goal was to prevent and reverse species extinction and gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service administrative authority.
Though it has been amended a few times since — the last time in 2004 — it continues to govern industry’s interactions with natural habitats.
Lyman-Richey Corporation’s participation in the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership goes back to its official inception two decades ago.
In the early ’90s, UNL researcher Jeanine Lackey worked with sand and gravel mining operations along the Platte and Loup Rivers to find a way to protect the nesting birds while minimizing impacts on the sand and gravel companies’ operations.
But a lack of consistent manpower and resources held back progress throughout the decade.
So Lackey, along with John Dinan of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, sought funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
In 1999 the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership was born — hatched, if you will — and Lyman-Richey’s sand and gravel companies were some of the very first to sign on.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the goals of industry and environmental conservation have often been in direct conflict. But Lyman-Richey has sought to mitigate our impacts in that equation, and a partnership like this certainly helps provide a clear process to do that.
By working alongside the researchers and government agencies, Lyman-Richey has tried to foster greater communication and community within those shared goals. And the goodwill that comes from the partnership’s cooperation could help the company in the event that a nest or egg were accidentally harmed — which carries a maximum penalty of a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail per incident.
“We’ve been in this from the get-go,” said Lyman-Richey’s Real Estate Manager Carol White. “It’s to our benefit to work with Mary and her crews to identify and keep these birds protected, because they do land on our sites. In case there is an unfortunate accident on our part, it’s our hope that the federal agencies will look at our past and participation and the fact that we were one of the initial partners.”
White added that our participation in the partnership also helps when our aggregate companies have to fill out wetlands permits for dredging operations that show we’re mitigating for any loss of wetlands in our mining operations.
“We would probably have to jump through considerably more hoops to prove that we’re watching out for the endangered species.”
As it turns out, our sand is the perfect place for the plovers and terns to nest.
“The more the big equipment is getting out in the sand, it is taking out the small trees and the little saplings and the weeds, and it is making just this perfect deal,” Brown said. “As soon as that sand is cleared, or there is more sand on top of it, it’s perfect. It’s exactly what they’re looking for.”
In mid- to late-April, when the birds come in from their southern wintering spots — the plovers along the Gulf Coast and Caribbean, and the terns down in Central and South America — they seek out sandy areas along rivers and lakes.
“They should be nesting on sandbars in the river, but that’s just not available to them like it once was,” Brown said. “So you guys are making wonderful sandbars, just as a by-product of what you do.”
And just like humans looking for a spot to lay out a beach towel, the birds are pretty picky.
In order for them to make their nests, which are literally small cups (about the size of making a cup with your hand), they need good, sturdy sand that’s free of rocks and pebbles or vegetation.
The small birds will sit in a spot and wiggle back and forth to create their nest cup. If the sand is too hard, they aren’t able to burrow down enough. And if the sand is too loose, the sides of the cup won’t hold up.
Their high-maintenance nature can be helpful to both the UNL crew and companies, though.
Since no one can impact the birds directly, the researchers can slightly alter sandy areas to make them less attractive nesting areas, thus gently moving birds to sites that might be less problematic for industry or real estate.
“If we make it so the sand won’t hold that cup structure for her, she’s going to move along,” Brown said. “It’s sort of The Three Bears kind of thing: too hard, too soft, just right.”
Raking the sand can make it too loose.
Planting fast-growing grass or rye creates too many obstructions.
Small red and silver flags can be put around the area to add distractions that will keep the birds moving on to the next spot.
“It’s low-tech stuff,” Brown said. “It’s simply to make this area so it’s not attractive, but then make this other area so it is. It’s sort of a fair-is-fair kind of arrangement.”
Through the migration process, the birds know where they are and where they return to. Brown and her team have found that the birds tend to seek out different locations after their first return migration. But once they’ve successfully nested somewhere, they tend to return to that area each season.
That first migration is usually the hardest, too. Only about a third of the birds survive that first trip. But after that, survival rates greatly improve, and it’s not uncommon to find many middle-aged birds in the mix.
How do the researchers know?
They follow the bands.
Over the last several years, the UNL crew and other researchers around the country have been adding small, harmless colored bands to the legs of the chicks and some adults.
The banding colors form a kind of code that is unique to every single bird, and as their locations are counted and reported, the researchers can compile the data to see where birds came from originally, where they went for the winter, and who’s still around each season.
But first you have to catch the birds.
Plovers are a little easier, Brown said. The researchers use a box with a trip-wired door that is put over the nest when the female leaves. They don’t leave for long, though. They’re pretty obsessed with incubating their eggs, so when they come back, their sole focus is getting back on their eggs. They go through the door, tripping the wire to shut the box, and then the researchers can band them — and give them a quick physical check, too.
“Terns are a bit warier than plovers are. So sometimes you need to outwit them a little bit,” Brown said.
The bands also allow researchers to track where the birds go when they go south. Fellow researchers in their wintering areas report sightings of individual birds.
But everyday people who watch birds as a hobby will also report their sightings to Fish and Wildlife, which adds the information back into the database for the researchers.
This wealth of knowledge allows researchers to report population numbers back to government agencies and show whether those populations are growing, holding steady, or declining.
And sometimes, that data can reveal even more information about other environmental concerns.
In April 2010, an offshore oil drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crewmembers, injuring 17 others, and igniting an inextinguishable fire that could be seen 40 miles away. The Deepwater Horizon rig sank two days later and left the ocean-floor well gushing oil in the largest marine oil spill in history.
It took 87 days to stop the leak, which released an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean and directly affected an ocean area around the size of Oklahoma. Over time, the oil drifted to the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – all part of the plovers’ wintering habitat.
Because of the banding and tracking efforts, researchers were able to determine that the oil spill had hurt some of the birds directly and that those who had ingested the chemicals developed a kind of cirrhosis that then made them less reproductive the following year, leading to a dip in the population.
Then in 2011, the Missouri River flooded, inundating much of the plover and tern nesting areas along the river banks.
This could have had a devastating effect on the birds, but luckily for them, there were several perfect patches of sand nearby — at our sand and gravel operations.
“I think it’s important for us to understand the effects we have on the world around us in what we do every day,” Real Estate Manager White said. “And often, in our industry, people are quick to point out any negatives we create. But the reality is, we’ve found it’s possible to work with nature and create opportunities for positives, too.”
And that work could become more important in the future, Brown said. As the global climate continues to change, things like rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes and storms, and more extreme droughts and flooding will greatly impact the delicate sand habitats the terns and plovers rely on for survival.
“It’s an issue that’s almost bigger than we can think about. But for these guys, it may make places like your sites more important for them.”
The cooperation between industry and conservationists isn’t so strong everywhere. Brown noted that things are especially contentious with real estate and development along the Atlantic coast.
But as the next nesting season starts around here this spring, our Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership will enter its 20th year, and in that time, it has become a shining example for those in industry and those who work in conservation.
“It’s sort of, even across the country, sort of a landmark sort of program that shows, yes, we can work with industry and real estate folks. We’ve been able to find a way to make this work,” Brown said.
In the last decade alone, Lyman-Richey sites have led to more than 145 plover nests and more than 560 tern nests. If you figure each plover nest has about four eggs, and each tern nest has two or three — and even if you figure only a percentage of those chicks will survive well into adulthood — the math shows our sand areas have helped a lot of birds.
Brown said overall the birds’ populations are doing well. Allowing the birds more nesting options lets them spread out and helps increase their chances of survival and procreation, helping their numbers to increase.
And the care and help some of our employees have given makes a difference, too.
Brown recalled a time one of the birds made a nest right by one of the scales.
“Why there? I don’t know,” she said. “The sand was just perfect for her. It was like, ‘Well, I can sit here for 28 days,’ and she had something to look at.”
Lyman-Richey employees not only put up markers around the nest, they spray painted a wire box hot pink and put it over the nest so drivers coming in and out of the weighing areas couldn’t miss it.
In addition, the partnership gives valuable experience — both in the field and in working with people — to the several students who work with Brown over the summer.
“If you’re going to do conservation and management and wildlife biology, if you want to do this for your career, well, working with the human element of it, you know, working with industry and businesses, this is a terrific way for them to learn, to try it on for size, to see exactly how it can be done, and how it can be made to work.
“It’s a good experience for them to work with you guys and the guys at the sites. The workers are characters, they’re fun. They’re actually pretty good biologists, too – they see a lot of stuff. They find a lot of nests for us.”
As the team gears up for the next season, Brown said they’re staying focused on all the things they always do while also working on possible forward-focused activities, but as always, it depends on their feathered friends.
“These three months of the year, small birds control what we do in our lives,” she said with a laugh.