Living Fossils At Risk

Proposed Legislation Threatens Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge

During the late spring and early summer, on nights with a high tide under a full or new moon, living fossils crawl en masse onto the beaches of the mid-Atlantic coast. These ancient arthropods are horseshoe crabs, which have survived relatively unchanged for 350 million years.

Yet, human development has created uncertainty about their ability to endure the millennia, as development and pollution threaten their mating habitat. These remarkable, primitive creatures spawn each year in very particular places, under exacting conditions. Just off the southern elbow of Cape Cod, Massachusetts lies the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the largest horseshoe crab spawning sites on the Atlantic Seaboard. Its sandy, sheltered beaches are ideal for the horseshoe crab spawning event, but this protected sanctuary has an uncertain future.

Legislation in the works in the U.S. House of Representatives would transfer control over half of the refuge from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management to the adjacent Town of Chatham. The transfer could lead to the loss of protections for the habitat of threatened and endangered species – including the horseshoe crab, piping plover, and other bird species – and hamper the public’s ability to witness these remarkable birds, fish, and other wildlife in their natural environment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has managed this natural treasure with conservation in mind; it’s unclear what the priorities would be under different management.

Such a transfer would also set a troubling precedent for the transfer of national public lands to state or local governments, instead of resolving differences over how natural resources should be managed. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is but the latest example in a long line of recent efforts to wrest national public lands from public lands.

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS

While Monomoy is one of the smaller National Wildlife Refuges, it is part of a vast and interconnected ecosystem. It sits at a critical location along the East Coast, and is a major migration stopover point for the threatened red knot, a medium-sized shorebird with a salmon-orange breast.

The red knot pauses at Monomoy on a journey more than nine thousand miles from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to the tip of South America. During their stop, the birds gorge themselves on thousands of horseshoe crab eggs along Monomoy’s beaches. That the eggs of these living fossils are laid in the sand just in time for the arrival of the red knots’ landing is a marker of what scientists call “historic synchronicity” – in layman’s terms, a remarkable, meaningful coincidence.

Red Knots amongst horseshoe crabs. Credit: USFWS
Red knots among horseshoe crabs. Photo by USFWS

While the horseshoe crab is categorized as a near-threatened species, declining populations are not due to the red knots devouring its eggs. Horseshoe crab spawning grounds along other areas of the East Coast are being disrupted by development, climate change, and pollution. Where the horseshoe crab population has dwindled, so have the numbers of red knots passing through.

Horseshoe crabs have endured for millennia, but concern is growing about their ability to survive the centuries to come. Monomoy remains one of the last totally protected spawning grounds for horseshoe crabs on the eastern Atlantic coastline – the majority of the refuge is a federally designated wilderness area, the only such place in southern New England. Such protection provides safe haven for these unique and ancient creatures, as well as the endangered and threatened bird populations that feed upon them. Transferring management or ownership away from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction would lead to losses that these species, however resilient, could not endure.

The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, like so many of our other public lands, protects critical wildlife habitat, and gives all Americans the opportunity to see such incredible wildlife in their natural settings. For Monomoy, and for our millions of other acres of incredible national public lands, tell candidates seeking public office this November to keep our public lands in public hands.

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