Endangered Species and Development: Striking a Compromise

With over thirty years of research on rare, threatened, and endangered (RTE) species in North Carolina, biologist David Webster has recently facilitated land-use and development strategies across Figure 8 Island committed to protecting the island's natural habitat.

In 1976, there were no records of annual sea turtle migration, or nesting habits, around several of the area's key barrier islands. Webster, having just received his bachelor's from UNCW, launched studies across Masonboro, and soon, Bald Head Island, to gather much-needed data concerning the uncommon flora and fauna. From turtles to salamanders, plovers to terns, and an endangered plant called seabeach amaranth, Webster's discoveries led to similar surveys for the National Park Service, including 19 national parks between Kitty Hawk and Anastasia, Florida. David Webster

And so, around the year 2000, the Figure "8" Beach Homeowners' Association reached out for Webster's expertise, hoping a more detailed analysis of their island's ecosystem might help tackle important infrastructure issues. In order to safeguard RTE species, including the last of the sea turtle nests, which hatch in late-October, federal law prohibits the operation of bulldozers and heavy machinery on North Carolina beaches between April and November. While it aims to preserve the natural environment, ultimately, the measure prevents Figure 8 residents from repairing possible hurricane destruction until mid-November-potentially months after the initial damage was done.

Enter Webster, who determined the exact whereabouts of the island's sea turtle population, thereby helping residents map out a responsible development strategy. "I could document exactly where every nest was. And I could say with certainty: that nest got washed away. Or: there were no nests in front of this house, so it's safe to bulldoze," says Webster. Ultimately, his findings helped residents coordinate the use of machinery with the Fish & Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers, even during prohibited seasons.

Being an integral part of responsible development has been satisfying, admits Webster, who now serves his alma mater as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies-and yet, the most rewarding aspect of his work? "Providing a wealth of applied learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students," he replies. "I've had a wonderful group of students who've worked with me." Webster gestures toward a shelf in his office, dedicated to the dozens of graduate theses over which he's presided. "The most important thing I've gained over my career is the opportunity to work with all those kids," he says, nodding toward his bookshelf. "That's where it's at."