Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge officials put out a news release last week that noted if you are visiting — or even driving through the area on northern Hatteras Island — you might notice some visible changes in the landscape.
And, no, they are not talking about all the construction on two bridges — the Bonner Bridge replacement, which will land on the north end of the refuge, or the temporary bridge over Pea Island Inlet, which is located just south of the Visitor Center about in the center of the refuge.
The news releases informs us that managers have scheduled routine mowing for the dikes around the three impoundments.
If you are not familiar with Pea Island, I’ll give you some information — though many folks have driven right through it, thinking they are on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The refuge is about 13 miles long and surrounded to the north and the south by the national seashore. It is comprised of 5,834 acres and 27,000 acres of designated boundary waters.
Pea Island is located on the Atlantic Flyway and, according to its website, provides nesting, resting, and wintering habitat for upwards of 365 species of greater snow geese and other migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, and neotropical migrants.
It’s come to be known as a “birder’s paradise” and veteran and beginning birdwatchers walks its trails, especially in the fall and winter, to see what they can add to their “life list.”
Though the refuge is located on a natural barrier island and parts of the refuge are what you could call “natural,” other parts are not.
The dunes are all man-made, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, perhaps about the time the refuge was established in 1938. There are three water-filled impoundments that are managed by a dike system to provide habitat for waterfowl. And, of course, N.C. Highway 12 — the Outer Banks Scenic Byway — runs right through the refuge, providing access to the refuge, most of the national seashore, the seven Hatteras island villages, and the ferry to Ocracoke Island and its village.
Earlier this week, refuge managers started the mowing operation for the dikes around the three impoundments to manage the growth of vegetation — larger shrubs and trees — whose root systems could damage the infrastructure of the dikes.
“It may look different in some areas for a short while,” said assistant refuge manager Art Beyer about the project. “But managing the vegetation on the dikes will help us maintain their integrity, which helps us not only improve critical habitat but also protect it.
“If the dikes are compromised,” he continued, “we could lose the ponds. Lots of migratory birds, including ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, wading birds, and a variety of song birds use these wetland areas, areas which are critical to providing a refuge and breeding ground to migratory birds, a main purpose of the refuge.”
Refuge managers say that during past dike mowing operations, some visitors have questioned the management action as “destructive to song bird habitat.”
But refuge wildlife biologist Becky Harrison says that there is plenty of suitable song bird habitat that is not associated with the dikes and will not be disturbed.
“When planning management actions, we look at impacts on all wildlife species,” she says. “In the case of this action, the benefit to migratory birds far outweighs the temporary loss of aesthetics.”
Beyer said he hopes the mowing operation can be finished in a few weeks — at least this winter — since the dikes really need attention.
He explained further how larger vegetation can hurt the dikes and, therefore, the waterfowl. As the larger shrubs and trees die, they deteriorate, leaving a hole in the dike, which can blow out in storms. It also puts the impoundments at risk for intrusion from the Pamlico Sound, making the water in them much too salty for waterfowl habitat.
“For me, as a manager, my first priority is those impoundments,” he said, since they provide a feeding and resting place for migrating waterfowl.
Now, some folks who are used to the priorities and the rules and regulations in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore find it curious that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can mow down vegetation to improve habitat, while the National Park Service often talks of “letting nature take its course.”
Some seashore users think the Park Service should mow down all the vegetation that has grown up around the Salt Pond at Cape Point to provide better habitat for nesting shorebirds, such as the threatened piping plover, and less habitat for predators who like to dine on their eggs and chicks.
Among the people who see the irony in the missions of the two agencies is seashore Superintendent David Hallac.
Hallac says that whenever he is driving Park Service staff members from Washington, D.C., or Southeastern headquarters in Atlanta to the seashore, he always points out to them the man-made and engineered environment through Pea Island, and notes that it is difficult to explain the difference between the missions of the two agencies to some seashore users who question him.
Hallac and Beyer agree that the primary difference is related to the missions of the two agencies.
“The NPS mission is focused on preserving and protecting resources for visitor enjoyment,” Hallac says. “It is sometimes seen as a dual mission in which we are balancing the preservation of resources, while allowing and promoting the public’s ability to see and enjoy them.”
He says he thinks the USFWS, specifically in the context of the refuge system, “has a mission that is focused on conserving and protecting species and wildlife habitats.”
“There is no doubt that they make efforts to allow the public to enjoy the resources within refuges, but that is secondary to their primary purpose,” says Hallac, whose background with the Park Service is in natural resource management and who worked with USFWS on several restoration project in the Everglades.
“Refuge management policies tend to include a more direct and active management focus (enhancement) on resources to the benefit of wildlife,” he says. “That differs from NPS management, which tends to promote a more hands-off approach and one that is often described as ‘letting nature take its course.'”
Beyer says he looks at the issue as both agencies’ having a dual mission. Both, he says, encourage public use of the resources and emphasize preserving them for future generations to enjoy.
“But, they (the NPS) are heavier on the public use side and we are heavier on the wildlife side,” says Beyer.
“… I’m sure it is confusing to the public when two sister agencies, managing similar lands and species, do things differently,” adds Hallac. “However, there is great value in the related, but different missions of each agency; they complement each other as a network of protected lands across the U.S.”
If you haven’t spent any time exploring Pea Island refuge, now is a good time to do it. We’ve been having some warmer winter days — good for exploring the trails through the refuge and watching the waterfowl wintering there. That includes all kinds of species of ducks, Canada geese, snow geese, swans, and others who are spending their days resting and feeding on their migration route.
Pea Island has a really nice Visitor Center with exhibits, interpretative information, a gift shop, and maps of the area and the trails. The Visitor Center is open year-round, and there are also guided tours and programs in season.
There is other good news about visiting Pea Island refuge.
The N.C. Department of Transportation says the temporary bridge at Pea Island Inlet is scheduled to be completed in May, which means it shouldn’t be long before the area is cleaned up and the New Inlet boat ramp, which has been closed by the construction project, reopens.
Beyer says the boat ramp is very popular with refuge users and he gets a lot of questions about when it will be available to the public again for fishing, crabbing, and launching kayaks, canoes, and other watercraft.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more information on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/pea_island/.