A Daufuskie Island resort could face legal action after a miscommunication led to the disturbance of a nesting ground for an endangered bird species.
Maintenance workers at the Melrose on the Beach resort disturbed a rookery for wood storks and other birds while clearing brush last month.
While the brush-clearing didn't actually damage the rookery -- located on two small islands in a lagoon near the resort buildings -- the incursion into the area may have interrupted the bird's nesting, according to Catherine Tillman, the resort's communications director.
Tillman said some wood storks left the area, exposing several nests to the elements, which could cause eggs not to hatch.
The incident occurred a day after the resort issued a statement saying it was committed to protecting the rookery.
Tillman said the resort's owner, the Pelorus Group,and managing partner JT Bramlette were "sick that this has happened" and were working with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a management plan for the area.
The resort still might face legal action.
Morgan Wolf, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, visited the rookery May 31 to survey the impact of the brush-clearing. She said it's not yet clear how much the brush-clearing affected nesting.
"We're going to mine through the data and see how the eggs were affected and if they were in the nests," she said. "It's not clear yet whether the storks were incubating eggs or not, but at this point in time biologically, it's likely that they were."
Wolf said she would turn over the results of her preliminary investigation to the Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement division. The division and the U.S. Justice Department will decide whether to pursue legal action.
The resort could be fined or required to correct the problem, Wolf said.
Despite the mishap, Daufuskie Island Conservancy president Laura Winholt said she was "convinced JT (Bramlette) is committed to protecting the rookery" after the conservancy met with him Wednesday.
"I cannot reinforce enough how horrible JT felt," Winholt said. "It appears to just be a very unfortunate miscommunication and an error. They seem committed to taking future steps to protect the rookery."
Winholt said the conservancy and resort have a presentation planned June 12, which will take place after Bramlette meets with DNR and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
DNR biologist Christy Hand, who investigated the impact the brush-clearing had on the rookery with Wolf, will discuss the rookery during the event.
In December, resort workers damaged the rookery while landscaping nearby, but an investigation by the Beaufort County Code Enforcement Office determined the removal of vegetation there was legal.
There were no state or federal sanctions in that case because birds were not present when the vegetation was removed.
At the time, Bramlette was not in charge of the resort, Tillman said. Instead, an equity partner who had since moved on to a property in Atlanta, was in charge. She added that Bramlette "wants to protect the rookery" from further harm.
"We completely understand why locals were upset and the passion they have for the area," she said. "We are looking forward to collaborating with them to protect this beautiful area."