U.S. Proposes Delisting Interior Least Tern

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed on October 23 removing the interior least tern from its list of endangered species. The agency said the least tern population—estimated as low as 2,000 throughout its entire range at the time of its listing in 1985—is now healthy and thriving.

The interior least tern is a member of the seabird family, but is found along rivers and waterways far inland, including the lengths of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It is one of three fish and bird species whose protection the USFWS cited in working with the Corps of Engineers to make changes to Missouri River habitats. The others are the pallid sturgeon and the piping plover.

In late 2000, a team of USFWS scientists who had been studying the river habitat issued a “biological opinion” favoring seasonal fluctuations in river flow. Such a river management system, they argued, would comply with the Endangered Species Act by helping to protect the three species. This recommendation became part of the Corps’ Missouri River management plan in 2004.

That decision was controversial from the start. Navigation interests worried that the measures used to create habitats for the species, such as creating side channels to encourage spawning, would interfere with the Missouri River’s steady flow.

Farmers and landowners who lived near the river argued that the measures also increased flood risk, coming into conflict with the Corps’ flood control mission for the Missouri River authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944 and the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Management Plan that emerged from that act.

A group of landowners and farmers with property along the Missouri River sued the Corps in a case known as Ideker Farms Inc., et al. v. United States of America, arguing that the changes to the river had resulted in increased flooding that damaged their properties. In 2018, federal judge Nancy Firestone agreed, ruling that the Corps had indeed caused increased recurrent flooding, and that the damage amounted to unlawful “taking” of private property.

The case is now in a damage assessment phase, with discovery underway since June and a compensation trial set to begin in April 2020, according to Dan Boulware, the St. Joseph, Mo., lead attorney in the Ideker Farms case.

Boulware told The Waterways Journal that the delisting of the least tern was a small step in the right direction. Boulware said, “This year’s overbank flooding was horrible, and there’s more to come. In the talks the Corps has been having about Missouri River management, they’ve been warning that we should expect more flooding in the next three out of five years. They should have said five out of five. We have people [along the river] still underwater, who haven’t been able to access their farms or homes since March.”

Officially, the government is saying that the delisting is being recommended because least tern populations have recovered. Recent estimates on the UWFSW’s website put the interior least tern population at 18,000.