Monomoy Refuge Celebrates 75 Years

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge

The Monomoy Point Lighthouse and keeper’s house, built in 1849, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Even before it became a protected sanctuary for migratory birds, Monomoy Island was known among avian enthusiasts. For decades duck hunters had come to Monomoy from far and wide, and by the 1930s it was recognized as one of the most important shorebird habitats on the east coast.

“They saw Monomoy as a place where hundreds, thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl congregated,” said Matt Hillman, current manager of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Since the federal legislation establishing the refuge was finalized 75 years ago June 1, its importance as a part of the migratory bird corridor known as the Atlantic Flyway has only increased as habitat disappears elsewhere. Today five species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (as well as 35 listed under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act) are regularly found on Monomoy, and South Monomoy hosts the largest colony of nesting common terns on the eastern seaboard, with more than 13,000 pairs.

The refuge will celebrate its anniversary with an open house on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Morris Island headquarters. Events will include fishing demonstrations, a discussion on shellfishing by Renee Gagne, the town's shellfish warden, guided tours of the mainland trails and overlooks and a look inside the National Weather Service's weather observation station next door.

Monomoy's ecological importance doesn't end with the rare shorebirds like piping plovers, roseate terns and red knots that pass through every season, Hillman noted. It also includes rare marsh habitat, one of the highest concentrations of spawning horseshoe crabs in the state, the largest haul-out for gray seals on the U.S. Atlantic coast, and a growing population of northeastern tiger beetles. There were no tiger beetles on the island 20 years ago when a small population was relocated from Martha's Vineyard; now, said Hillman, there are so many they can't be counted, and Monomoy's beetles will serve as a feeder population to help re-establish the species in other areas from which it has disappeared.

Much of this success is thanks to the 1970 designation of much of the refuge as a federal Wilderness Area, the only one in Southeastern Massachusetts. That guaranteed its permanent protection and outlaws all buildings, vehicles and mechanical devices.

“It makes our job challenging,” said Hillman. “But it's a good thing. It ensures beach habitats are left to remain as they are.”

The wilderness designation allows boats to land on the refuge, and means that hikers, bird watchers and fishermen experience a landscape like no other in the region. Hillman said he enjoys going off the few trails that crisscross the island and coming across unexpected finds—not only wildlife, but the remnants of fences, homes and other structures that were once on the island.

“What we forget sometimes is that [Monomoy] used to be a bustling village,” he said. Indeed, at one time as many as 50 families lived in “Whitewash Village,” a settlement around a nature deep-water harbor near the southern end of the island known as the Powder Hole. In the century before, Monomoy was used to graze sheep and cattle, and the plethora of shipwrecks in the area led to the opening of Stewart's Tavern in 1711 to serve passing sailors and fishermen who began to settle there. One of its the first shelters for mariners was placed near Monomoy's southern tip by the Massachusetts Humane Society in 1802. Monomoy Point Lighthouse was built in 1823, and replaced with a new structure in 1949. The 40-foot iron tower, and the adjacent keeper's house, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the past few years the keeper's house has been renovated, weatherproofed and solar panels added so that it can be used year-round.

Whitewash Village flourished until the mid 1800s, with as many as 200 residents, a school and inn. In 1860 a hurricane filled in the harbor (the Powder Hole is now a landlocked pond). The U.S. Lifesaving Service built a station closer to Morris Island in 1872, and a station on Monomoy Point in 1902. By that time the island hosted mostly seasonal family camps and hunting camps. Between 1862 and 1931 the Monomoy Brant Club housed sportsmen of the wealthy variety.

The military took over Monomoy in 1932 and it was used for strafing and bombing training during World War II. There were still nearly two dozen camps on the island, and after the wildlife refuge was established in 1944, camps were gradually removed, the last one in 2000.

Monomoy is part of the Outer Cape's barrier beach system, and over the decades and centuries has attached and broken away from the mainland at Morris Island. It separated most recently from Morris Island in 1958, and the blizzard of 1978 separated the barrier island into North and South Monomoy. In the early 2000s South Beach attached to South Monomoy, creating a connection with the mainland for the first time in nearly half a century.

Over the years the refuge has not been without controversy. An attempt to protect nesting terns and plovers by poisoning the growing population of gulls—which threatened to crowd out terns and other species—became a public relations nightmare. Many of the gulls ended up dying in ponds and backyards on the mainland. The program only lasted a year, although lethal harassment of nesting gulls continued and nonlethal control measures, including destroying nests and frightening away the birds, is still done. Ironically, the controversial program was successful, Hillman said, helping create habitat for the vast number of terns and other seabirds that now nest on the island.

“We're at a point now where we almost have too many birds,” he said.

More recently, in the early 2000s, faced with the possibility of commercial shellfishing near the refuge being shut down, the town conducted scientific and economic studies to show the importance of the fishery as well as its role as a steward of the resource. When the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan was finally issued nearly a decade and a half later, commercial shellfishing was designated as an allowed activity. However, the plan, which was ultimately approved and is now in place, declared that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had jurisdiction over some 3,000 to 4,000 acres of open water and submerged lands between the western shore of Monomoy and the administrative boundary in Nantucket Sound set in the 1944 refuge declaration of taking. The town and state protested, claiming that the federal agency had never exerted jurisdiction over this area in the past and it had been well regulated over the decades by local authorities. Officials have sought to settle the dispute through negotiations and federal legislation, but it remains unresolved. Even more recently, a proposal to allow coyote hunting on the refuge raised the ire of wildlife advocates.

Still, the town and the refuge maintain a good working relationship.

“The refuge has protected a fragile ecosystem and maintains unspoiled open space that is no longer available anywhere else in town,” Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis said in an email. “Chatham's commitment to wise stewardship of the island’s natural resources, protecting and sustainably managing those resources, protecting endangered species, and overseeing appropriate, safe public access is in keeping with the refuge’s 75 year-long history.”

Today, the refuge headquarters a visitors center and offices as well as a garage and dorm building and public rest rooms, which Hillman said will be undergoing renovation in the near future to make them more environmentally friendly. Annually about 40,000 people visit the refuge, 90 percent of them remaining on the 40-acre Morris Island section, which also has hiking trails and beach access. Few visitors, mostly hikers, fishermen and birds—attracted by Monomoy's tendency to attract rare species—go to the islands. Monomoy remains something of a hidden gem, Hillman said.

“There's a misconception among many that we're closed off” and not accessible by the public, while the opposite is true. That's something he hopes the 75th anniversary events now and throughout the year will help alleviate.

The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan served as the source for some of the historical information in this story.