Conservationists are celebrating the Chicago Park District’s announcement Wednesday of a 3.1-acre expansion of the Montrose Dune Natural Area, a site that’s gained international attention in recent years as the nesting home for a pair of endangered Great Lake piping plovers, Monty and Rose.
“This is a huge win for Great Lakes conservation, and I commend the Chicago Park District for its visionary leadership,” said Leslie Borns, steward of the Montrose beach dunes. “It’s a happy day.”
The addition, on top of the dunes’ existing 12.8 acres, increases the protected area for wildlife and plants along Chicago’s lakefront. While the plovers are the site’s most high-profile occupants, other shorebirds rely on the natural area for food and shelter either year-round or on their migratory routes. Rare plant species have also taken hold at the site.
“This treasured space … brings nature and people together in a unique way,” Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly said in a statement.
Borns had requested the additional acreage — a swath of open beach that has a tendency to flood — in order to implement a more unified approach to management of the natural area. The newly added land lies just outside the natural area’s protected boundaries, borders the plovers and other wildlife didn’t recognize as they went about the business of foraging.
“The plovers come in the spring and we have to rush out and put up this fencing. It’s haphazard,” Borns previously told WTTW News. “That approach to management makes no sense. It really has become critical habitat. If it were given formal protection, it could be managed much better.”
Now the Park District, in partnership with state and federal agencies, as well as Borns and her platoon of volunteers, can prepare for the anticipated return of Monty and Rose and also plan how best to incorporate the addition into the dune ecosystem.
“The ecosystem comes first,” said Bob Dolgan, an avid birder who made a movie about Monty and Rose. “You need to build that before the birds will come. The birds, that’s our hook to help people understand the bigger picture of why the (plovers) chose this location.”
The dunes began to form in 2000 after a section of beach was exposed by low lake levels. Native dune and wetland plants sprouted, holding more and more sand in place until the growth of the dunes was undeniable. Today the area prevents the loss of sand on the beach by holding water during storms and high wave action.
In 2005, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources added Montrose Beach Dunes to the state’s list of high-quality natural areas.
Season after season, year after year, Borns has witnessed the dunes’ evolution. The plovers’ arrival and successful breeding in 2019 was the fulfillment of the dunes’ promise, she said.
“I used to watch plovers visit. I remember one year there was something like nine of them. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible if they came and nested?’” Borns recalled.
That was some 17 years ago. The appearance of Monty and Rose offered proof that the ecosystem had reached a point where it could sustain a species in desperate need of shoreline habitat.
“The complexity and the growth of the vegetation, this type of habitat is so rare,” said Borns. “It’s what the birds evolved with and are comfortable with. It had all the elements they like and they want. This is a welcoming place.”
Borns, coincidentally, was in the middle of a Zoom meeting of national piping plover advocates when news reached her of the Park District’s announcement regarding the added acreage. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, she said, as the meeting’s purpose was to discuss the 2021 plover season.
Plans can now be put in motion to erect permanent fencing around the addition and incorporate signage to educate people about the plovers and the natural area. (There are access points in the fencing. The natural area is open to people for passive recreation.)
“Going back to two years ago, for this to be the outcome is outstanding,” said Dolgan. “So often, it feels like we’re defending natural areas. This is so much more affirmative, to say, ‘We’re expanding.’ This really can be a milestone for Chicago natural areas.”
The win isn’t just for the birds, Borns and Dolgan noted. It’s for all the Chicagoans who take comfort and find sustenance in nature. To have a refuge like the dunes within city limits is remarkable, they said.
“People really need nature now more than ever,” said Borns. “To add (acreage) in a high-pressure area, it’s very visionary.”