Save the Sound Puts Feds on Notice: Endangered Species Call Plum Island Home

Federal government’s planned sale of island would put endangered wildlife at risk.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Laura McMillan: 203-787-0646 ext. 137
Sarah Ganong: 203-787-0646 ext. 128

New Haven, Conn. – Save the Sound, a bi-state program of Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and Soundkeeper have issued a 60-day notice letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the General Services Administration (GSA), informing the federal agencies that the organizations intend to file suit under the Endangered Species Act. The organizations allege that the agencies have failed to protect endangered and threatened species while pursuing a public sale of the federally-owned island.

Seals enjoying the rocks on Plum Island. Photo credit Robert Lorenz.
Seals enjoying the rocks on Plum Island. Photo credit Robert Lorenz.

“For decades, Plum Island has been a refuge for rare wildlife in our highly-developed region,” said Leah Lopez Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs at Save the Sound. “The island and the waters around it are a safe haven for terns, plovers, sea turtles, rare orchids, and untold thousands of migrating birds each year. The federal government has a solemn legal and ethical obligation to protect threatened and endangered species. Sadly, GSA and DHS conducted their environmental assessment and issued their final recommendation for a sale without sufficiently consulting the federal wildlife agencies versed in protecting these threatened species, even though they acknowledge that the species are present and that development of the island could affect them. That consultation is not a mere formality—it’s essential to making sure GSA and DHS’s actions don’t jeopardize these rare plants, birds, and animals. This failure violates the Endangered Species Act and puts the natural resources that belong to the American people at risk.”

“Congress’ decision to sell Plum Island was flawed from the start, and GSA’s process since then has only compounded that unacceptable mistake,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “Failure to protect this environmental treasure—and the endangered species that rely on its pristine habitat—would be a true crime against nature. Either through legislation or other legal measures, we must ensure that Plum Island’s unique and extraordinary land is preserved for generations to come. Connecticut and the region owe Save the Sound a debt of gratitude for their unflagging advocacy and commitment to this vital issue.”

“Congress made a mistake in authorizing this sale, and I’m thankful to Save the Sound for bringing this oversight to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “The failure to consult with multiple wildlife and fisheries services before permitting the sale of Plum Island brings sets a bad precedent for the protection of Long Island Sound and Connecticut. The island—which is home to rare, threatened, and endangered species—needs to be managed by an entity that has environmental preservation as its top priority; anything else would be a step backwards in our goal of achieving a cleaner, healthier planet.”

Plum Island, an 840-acre island located at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, has long been home to a federal animal disease research facility that restricts human presence. As a result the island’s diverse array of habitats has become a de facto wildlife refuge. Shore-nesting birds like the federally endangered Roseate Tern and the federally threatened Piping Plover use its shores as do 57 bird species listed as of Greatest Conservation Need in New York, such as the Osprey and Common Eider. The waters around the island are probable habitat for five species of sea turtle that are listed as threatened and endangered. Threatened plants and insects also populate the island, and its rocks are one of the most important seal haul-out areas in southern New England. Visit the Preserve Plum Island Coalition’s website for more information about the threatened flora and fauna of Plum Island.

“The Sound’s overall health and vitality is of great significance for our region and the ecological importance of Plum Island cannot be overstated,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), co-chair of the Long Island Sound Caucus. “This natural habitat is a refuge for wildlife that, once developed, cannot be undone. We have a responsibility to ensure the preservation of the endangered and threatened species that call this Island home.”

“Plum Island is true ecological treasure for the Long Island Sound and for our region,” said Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2). “I share the concerns of many on both sides of the Sound about the harmful impact of the statutory requirement that GSA sell the island—a requirement that short-circuits the normal process of disposing of federal property like Plum Island in a thoughtful way. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Connecticut and New York, as well as stakeholders like Save the Sound, to continue to advocate for the elimination of this requirement and the preservation of Plum Island.”

“We have a responsibility to ensure that Plum Island, and the Sound as a whole, is a healthy and vibrant natural resource for the next generation,” said Congressman Steve Israel (NY). “Maintaining Plum Island as a haven for a large number of species, including some endangered species, is of the utmost importance.”

The Endangered Species Act protects listed species from harassment or harm, including interference with vital breeding, feeding, and behavioral activities. In addition, it requires that federal agencies must ensure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by them is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any protected species or damage any designated critical habitat.

“The decision to sell Plum Island was, in my opinion, made without adequate critical analysis and evaluation,” said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. “The lack of development on Plum Island makes this unique open space an environmental treasure that should be preserved. I support Save the Sound and Soundkeeper’s efforts to safeguard the island and protect the threatened and endangered species that thrive on it.”

“We strongly support the efforts of Save the Sound and its legal challenge to the government’s decision to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder,” said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End. The Long Island-based organization is a member, along with Save the Sound, of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition. “It is impossible to understand how the federal government could simultaneously document the island’s unique and fragile environmental, cultural, and historical resources, yet conclude that a private sale of the island for any number of potential development purposes would not result in significant environmental damage. Save the Sound is right to challenge this flawed logic and we join them in working toward the protection of this unique national resource.”

In August 2013, DHS and GSA issued a decision proposing sale of the island without any restrictions to prevent development that could adversely affect listed species. Save the Sound and Soundkeeper’s notice letter describes how the agencies violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing their Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision without sufficiently consulting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about alternatives that could protect endangered species as required by law. These missteps has resulted in a plan that fails to ensure the agencies’ action will not jeopardize endangered or threatened species and fails to ensure that critical habitat will not be destroyed. Moving forward with an unfettered sale of Plum Island therefore constitutes an ongoing violation of the Endangered Species Act.


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