A balk in the park: the Montrose habitat addition that might not happen

Decision could limit space for pair of piping plovers, only 64 remaining in the world

The request was simple: add a few acres to the protected dune area at Montrose Beach, one of the only places where anything resembling pre-20th century Lake Michigan shoreline remains. The dunes have lost quite a bit of acreage in the past couple years due to rising Lake Michigan water levels. They’ve shrunk from 14 to nine acres. It’s too bad because this little plot of land is home to 28 federally listed plant species and 18 bird species. The place is a gem and the only state natural area on the North Side of the city.

Leslie Borns is known for almost single-handedly restoring the dunes over the past 20 years as a volunteer site steward. The place has become the jewel of the Chicago Park District’s natural areas. Something unexpected happened last year when a pair of endangered piping plovers—only 64 pairs left in the world—started showing nesting behavior near the dunes. Monty and Rose went on to some renown, if only because they became known as “the birds that brought down a music festival.” But they also drew a loyal following among beach goers, birders and, I like to think, Chicagoans in general. In fact, I made a film about them as a volunteer out on the beach.

This year was very different. And so are the Great Lakes. The reality is that there is more water on the beach, and that’s been a boon to Monty, Rose and all sorts of other shorebirds, at least 20 species in all, some of which migrate from the Arctic Circle. The high water levels aren’t likely to change. Leslie and others made the request to the powers-that-be at the Park District to expand Monty and Rose’s habitat by a few acres over there at the beach. Now word is that the habitat addition might not happen. That’s a shame in a year when the natural world has been almost all we have left, and when most anyone would want more land for these two little birds.

When future generations look back on what happened to our natural areas, our endangered species and Lake Michigan, they might examine the situation at Montrose. It will show clearly who stepped up and who took the easy route of the status quo.

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