Plight of the Snowy Plover & Beach Closures


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More beaches may be closed in fight to save snowy plover

Pacific beachgoers, off-road drivers already upset by restrictions

By Leon Drouin Keith, Associated Press

OCEANO, Calif. -- A walk on the beach will become more difficult in spots up and down the Pacific Coast as federal authorities try to keep a bird smaller than a human fist from disappearing.
Efforts to protect the snowy plover already have angered off-road vehicle users and other beachgoers shut out of some beaches along California´s Central Coast. Still more closures are being recommended in a draft recovery plan for the snowy plover, which is open for public comment until mid-December.

Federal biologists and environmentalists say people still will be able to enjoy California, Oregon and Washington beaches, but that more restricted access and a host of other measures are needed to prevent the 2-ounce bird´s population from collapsing.

"There´s so little beach left that these guys can actually nest on," said Babak Naficy, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, a Central Coast environmental group seeking increased restrictions to protect the plover. "There´s not much time left for compromise . . . because we´re down to the very, very brink."

Along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, development and recreation have caused the number of snowy plover nesting sites to plummet from 88 to 32 over the past 20 to 30 years, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist David Pereksta.

The plover, a white, gray and black beachcomber, makes its nest out of a divot in the sand, confident that predators won´t spot the tiny, speckled eggs that blend in with pebbles, driftwood and seaweed.

But that exposure also makes the nests susceptible to inadvertent destruction by beach walkers and off-roaders.

"People don´t know what they look like. They could easily step on a bird or their eggs just because they´re so cryptic," Pereksta said.

The plover also nests from late spring to the end of September, the very time most people are drawn to the beach.

Non-native European beachgrass and iceplant introduced decades ago to stabilize dunes also contribute to the bird´s struggles. Those species have taken over plover habitat and provide cover to skunks, foxes, feral cats and other animals that prey on plovers or their eggs.

Snowy plovers along the coast from southern Washington to the tip of Baja California were listed as threatened in 1993. Although a threatened species is in less immediate peril than an endangered one, the two federal designations offer similar protections.

Snowy plovers in other areas, including the Atlantic Coast and inland saline lakes, are not considered threatened.

A 1999 report by researchers with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory estimated the number of plovers in the three states at 1,950. Judging by a more recent partial survey of the coast, the current population is closer to half that, Pereksta said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service´s recovery plan for the snowy plover aims to increase the bird´s population to an average of 3,000 over 10 years, with all but 250 of those birds in California and about 40 percent of them in three Central Coast counties: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

When final, the document will guide federal officials who are trying to boost plover numbers by removing predators, non-native plants and beachgoers from plover habitat. The recovery effort is expected to take until at least 2025 and cost more than $33 million.

It recommends new public-access restrictions at about 15 locations, from Bandon State Park in Oregon to Navy installations in San Diego.

Restrictions already are in place in some areas, including Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the entire beach was closed in late summer, and Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The Central Coast park is the only place in California where off-road vehicles can drive on the beach.

At Oceano Dunes, off-road enthusiasts have lost about 160 acres -- or 10 percent of their previous driving grounds -- because of concerns over the snowy plover. Environmentalists want even more restrictions.

"I see a way of life for my children about to come to an end," said Jim Suty of San Jose, president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, a 10,000-member group trying to preserve beach access.

Suty said the recovery plan offers an incomplete picture of the plover´s status because it doesn´t take into account a large coastal population that spends at least part of the year in Mexico.

In addition to closures, the plan recommends several methods of improving plover habitat, including removing predators and non-native plants, erecting fences around nesting sites, restricting development, adding information signs and working harder to keep dogs and fireworks away from beaches.

Recent visitors to Oceano Dunes said they´ve already had to cope with more than enough restrictions.

Tim Harvey, a Pismo Beach electrical engineer who was kite-surfing at the beach, was careful to fly his kite over the water before getting on his board.

The park bans flying kites over the beach during nesting season, but he doubted his hobby really bothers the birds.

"If you´re going to allow four-wheel-drive vehicles, what´s a kite going to do?" Harvey asked.

CORVA Field Rep - So. Cal.