South Carolina wildlife officials will temporarily close Deveaux Bank, a rapidly eroding island south of Charleston that’s a critical rest stop for pelicans, whimbrels and other birds that depend on our increasingly fragile coastal edges.

The move follows a recent outcry from conservation groups who said the island had lost so much ground that any human activity on it would disrupt one of the East Coast’s most important bird sanctuaries.

“It’s down to about 6 acres now, and there’s just too little there for both human occupation and the birds,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who met with state Department of Natural Resources officials after an April 26 Post and Courier report about the island’s plight.

The story also detailed how residents from nearby Wadmalaw Island had long used the island as a favorite fishing spot and beachcombing haunt, and that DNR had tried to balance the interests of residents and wildlife. Campsen said DNR officials agreed to make the island off limits during nesting season.

In a news release, DNR said a complete closure was necessary to protect the state’s nesting pelican population. Pelicans apparently have abandoned several other sanctuaries, including Bird Key-Stono and Tomkins Island near Savannah, but pelicans have packed Deveaux even as that island has shrunk. All areas of Deveaux are closed to foot traffic, including the shallow sandflats.

Riley Bradham, mayor of the Wadmalaw town of Rockville, said the closure was a sound decision brd on biology. He said he boated to the island May 5 to take photos of the migrating whimbrels.

“There just doesn’t appear to be any room for human access,” he said, adding that he hoped that natural forces would eventually rebuild the islands. He said he thought most people on Wadmalaw would understand DNR’s decision.

Deveaux Bank sits at the mouth of the North Edisto River, just south of Seabrook Island. One bank is shaped like a horseshoe, and a much smaller bit of sand pokes above the waves just to the west.

Deveaux Bank is one of the most important shorebird sanctuaries on the East Coast, a way station for birds flying from as far as South America. In 2019, a DNR team counted more than 20,000 whimbrels on Deveaux during their long trek between South America and the Arctic. Until then, scientists weren’t sure where the birds rested during the journey.

But Deveaux has been hammered by intense storms, including December’s nor’easter. Add natural shifts in currents and higher sea levels from a rapidly warming climate, and Deveaux had lost much of its high ground.

In April, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources made much of Deveaux off limits to human activity. But the agency still left open a significant section to people who wanted to land boats and walk around. The Solomon-like move confounded birders given what was happening to the island.

Campsen said DNR officials told him they’d done a recent survey and found only 6 acres were left. They all agreed it made sense to temporarily close it, he said.

Campsen said that if people went onto the island, birds would scatter from their nests, “and that’s a virtual death sentence for the chicks because the gulls are ready to pounce.” Campsen added that the island is an important preserve for both the Southern and Northern hemispheres, given the whimbrels’ long-distance flights from South America.

Chris Crolley, head of Coastal Expeditions, said he was thankful for DNR’s change of heart, as well as leadership from Campsen and Bradham. He noted DNR’s quick action was unusual for the agency. “A big thank you to DNR for getting it done as soon as they did.”

Crolley added the closure should be “a springboard” for a longer-term look at renourishing Deveaux as it did for Crab Bank in Charleston Harbor. That project helped restore the island as a major shorebird rookery.