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Federal plan urges restoration of salt marsh at Prime Hook refuge

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to eliminate the ponds that flood homes and farmland around Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and allow them to revert to salt marsh that would be more resistant to sea-level rise.

In a long-awaited report on future management of the southern Delaware preserve, the federal agency on Thursday proposed ending its maintenance of four large impoundments that were originally created as freshwater refuges for migratory birds but have become increasingly saline with an influx of sea water.

At least one of the ponds spills into the bordering Prime Hook Beach community and some surrounding farmland during storms and strong northeast winds, flooding homes and yards, killing trees and damaging crops.

In its draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), the FWS identified rising seas as one cause of the flooding, and said that it could not continue to manage the impoundments as it currently does.

“After researching existing science, we feel that managing the existing impoundments is not sustainable,” the service said in a newsletter accompanying the report. “We propose restoring the four refuge units to salt marsh which we believe will help the refuge be more resilient to the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise.”

Rising seas have contributed to breaches in the dunes that separate the Delaware Bay and the eastern edge of the refuge, allowing sea water to flow into the impoundment and frequently submerging Prime Hook Beach Road, the community’s only link with the rest of the state.

Residents there have endured frequent flooding for the last six years as state and federal agencies declined to fix the breaches while the CCP was being conducted, a process that began in 2004 and was originally planned to end in 2007. The delay – about twice as long as a CCP normally takes – prompted a letter from Delaware’s Congressional delegation to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in March, urging him to expedite the process.

The study was repeatedly delayed by litigation and rapid habitat changes caused by storms and dune breaches, all of which led to scientists to conduct a comprehensive and time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement rather than a shorter Environmental Assessment.

The report comes as Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control prepares for the publication of its own study of the vulnerability of the state as a whole to rising seas.

A draft of the DNREC study released in April predicted the state will lose between 8 and 11 percent of its land mass by the end of the century as seas rise by 1 meter because of rising global temperatures and melting polar ice sheets. Delaware is under a greater threat than many other coastal areas because its land is sinking at the same time as oceans are rising.

Economically vital locations such as the Port of Wilmington would be hard hit, while virtually all of tidal wetlands like Prime Hook would be inundated, the DNREC study said.

Sea-level rise was identified by the FWS as among the biggest issues facing Prime Hook. It said that although the impoundments have attracted wintering waterfowl, “they are not sustainable in the long term, due to saltwater intrusion from storms and other natural events.”

In its study, the service also focused on hunting which it said provides biological, recreational and economic benefits to the refuge, and to cooperative farming in which the FWS helps to manage 600 acres on the refuge as feeding areas for Canada geese and ducks. And it looked at the management of mosquitoes which it called “a natural and important part of the refuge ecosystem” but which may also be a nuisance or a health threat to local communities and visitors.

The federally mandated 1,200-page study said the 10,000-acre refuge should be managed in order to achieve the FWS’s mission of biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of an area that was established in 1963 to protect coastal wetlands for wintering and migratory birds. Continuing to manage the impoundments would run counter to those goals, it said.

The plan would also mean the end of a cooperative farming program, allowing farmland to revert to native forest which would increase habitat for endangered Delmarva fox squirrels and forest birds while deterring large numbers of resident Canada geese.

Those geese, along with mute swans and “over-abundant” snow geese, would be subject to “lethal control” if needed, the report said. Hunters would be allowed on to more areas of the reserve, and more often, and a turkey hunt would be added, according to the agency’s favored plan.

The reserve would seek to attract more visitors by adding new hiking trails, more fishing places, and environmental programs.

Meanwhile, the endangered piping plover and other rare beach-nesting birds would be protected from predators by fencing and other methods.

“We would actively manage the refuge to mimic natural processes,” the report said. “At the same time, we would reduce or discontinue management actions that are contrary to the Service’s policy.”

Prime Hook’s plan to expand visitor services is in line with the state’s new Delaware Bayshore Initiative that promotes outdoor recreation across a wide swath of coastal Delaware while enhancing conservation and boosting local tourism.

The FWS proposals are among three options presented as ways forward for Prime Hook.

Under one alternative, the service would continue to manage the impoundments and rebuild the dunes.

“We would also rebuild infrastructure and conduct duneline enhancements necessary to re-establish management of freshwater ponds,” it said. Under that option, upland fields previously in the cooperative farming program would once again be farmed.

That plan would expand opportunities for hunting from current levels, and boost public outreach and education but would offer less public use and fewer hunting opportunities than the service’s preferred option.

The second alternative would continue current management which would protect habitat for shore birds and other species including the bald eagle but would not actively manage predators, mute swans or snow geese, and would continue to use a pesticide for adult mosquitoes that can impact other insects and animals.

The public can offer its thoughts on the report is at a series of six public meetings in June. A final version is expected by the end of the year.

U.S. Senator Tom Carper called the CCP a “critical step” toward finalizing plans for Prime Hook.

Cindy Miller, chair of the Prime Hook Beach Organization, a community group, said she had not had time to digest the vast report but would do so in coming days.