No one is questioning the need to replace the White Marsh Elementary School roof. However, the timing and execution of this summer’s replacement project destroyed a colony of Least Terns, a migratory species designated as Threatened by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916.
Least Terns have nested on the school’s roof in recent years. The school’s flat roof, covered with gravel and small rock, is perfect habitat for the species. Least Terns normally select open sandy or shell-covered beaches and islands on coastlines or rivers to build its nests. Most of these sites have disappeared during the last century due to coastal development and the construction of dams on interior rivers. As a result, the Least Tern population has declined significantly over the last 50 years – the North America Breeding Bird Survey estimates an 87 percent decline in their numbers since 1966. This makes the protection of colonies even more important as a means of conserving this species.
The rooftop colony of Least Terns would be a great story on how development, done right, can incorporate conservation to help offset the many other threats leading to species decline, with many scientists estimating that over 1 million plant and animal species are on track to go extinct during the next century unless we take action to reverse this trend. Unfortunately, that story is on hold due to missteps by the Talbot County School District in replacing the roof.
In early June, shortly after the last day of school, the School District initiated the roof replacement project. Apparently, no one at the school nor the facilities manager for the School District bothered to check the roof ahead of time, nor noticed the dozens of Least Terns flying back and forth onto the roof, so they were unaware of the nesting colony of Least Terns. They were also unaware that the species, like over one thousand other bird species, were protected by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918. This act, among other things, prohibits destroying nests, taking eggs, or killing birds without appropriate permits or licenses.
Two DNR wildlife biologists became aware of the project on June 13 and visited the site the following day. When they arrived, they met with a school administrator and the roofing contract manager, who claimed not to be aware of the Least Terns, the nests, or the Federal law protecting them. At that time, most of the old roof had been removed and discarded. While several workers had found eggs on the roof and placed them in a box in a well-intentioned but futile attempt to keep them out of harm’s way. Of course, since the adults were not able to continue incubating the eggs, they would not be able to develop and hatch. The biologists estimated that between 20 to 30 nests were lost because of the project. They also found a few chicks that recently hatched. The biologists asked that the work near these chicks be suspended for a couple of weeks to allow them to fledge from the roof. Whether and how the school complied with this request is unclear, as is the question of whether any of the chicks survived.
It is important to note that migratory species protections would not have prevented the roof replacement. Instead, these protections, if followed, would have required the school to work with the appropriate wildlife authorities to implement the project in a way that would have protected the Least Tern nests, such as altering the timing of the work or taking other steps to mitigate any impacts. Unfortunately, once DNR became aware, the damage was already done.
Now two questions remain. First, will the Least Terns return next year? Fortunately, the new roof will look a lot like the old, with gravel and rock strata on a flat surface. So maybe this be enough to attract the terns to return next year or so and continue nesting there. Or will this human disturbance cause them to abandon the site. We will have to wait and see.
Second, what will the school district and those involved in the project do next? The best thing they can do is demonstrate leadership by publicizing this experience as a way of teaching others about the importance of environmental education, and encouraging all to value nature and make the natural world a priority in everyday actions and decisions. We can all take steps to help conserve, protect, and restore our natural resources, but only through greater awareness. In the words of Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
Hopefully the Least Terns will return next year, and we can welcome them back to our community after their long flight back from their South American wintering grounds. If so, I’m hoping those from the school district will be among the first and loudest voices welcoming them, inspiring others to understand that the natural world is all around us. Sometimes only a few feet above us. All we need to do is look around and find ways to embrace conservation to make a meaningful difference.