July 13, 2008

But Could It Be Something Else?


By W. Meade Stith III

Environmentalists have sued to stop driving on beaches in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to push for more critical habitat designations in the Seashore. The stated reason for these actions is to protect the piping plover, a shorebird considered "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. In 2008, a consent decree closed the most popular beaches in the Seashore. You'd think the piping plover population is collapsing. It isn't.

The facts tell a startlingly different story, according to the official reports of park activity.

Piping plover populations have tripled (2003-07) in the Seashore under the less restrictive National Park Service controls that were in place before the recent consent decree - while visitation on the beaches continued, according to the official reports.

To consider whether current beach closures are warranted, we can examine piping plover history and consider what, if any, impact can be inferred from visitation by pedestrians and beach vehicles under the previous NPS rule. Beginning in 1996, significant declines in the piping plover were observed.

The plover pair population reached an all-time low in 2003, just as visitation declined by 21 million, its lowest point since the recession of 1990. This suggests that beach driving and plover populations are not related. Since the NPS has been setting aside bird nesting areas and limiting beach driving for more than 20 years, it would be surprising if they were.

Interestingly, plover populations didn't just drop in the Seashore; identical declines were mirrored across North Carolina and reached new lows in 2004. Obviously, beach driving in the Seashore couldn't cause a reduction in plover outside of the Seashore.

It is also surprising that while plover populations dropped to record lows in the Seashore and in North Carolina, they rose in Virginia and along the entire Eastern Seaboard, reaching new highs.

What could reduce plover population in North Carolina and in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, while at the same time reduce tourism in the Seashore by 21 million? It would appear that plovers and tourists have one thing in common: They don't like hurricanes.

Over the nine years from 1987 to 1995, when three hurricanes hit Carolina, plover populations rose. In the nine years from 1996 to 2004, when nine hurricanes impacted the state, the Other Banks and plover populations fell.

Since 2004, no hurricanes have impacted Carolina, and the population tripled, from 20 to 61 pairs. At the same time, the number of plovers tripled, from two to six pairs, in the Cape Hatteras Seashore. The increased hurricane activity is much more likely the cause of plover loss than tourism in the Seashore.

Perhaps the most surprising fact follows: At current rates of recovery, the Atlantic Coast Piping Plover will reach its East Coast recovery goal in four years and could be fully recovered in less than three years.

Given all of the facts, it appears that there is no need for the increased restrictions on beach driving that are required under the judicially imposed consent decree, nor are the critical habitat areas proposed by the Fish and Wildlife Service justified. In fact, both the restrictions begun in 2008 and the critical habitat designations appear arbitrary and capricious because they ignore readily available facts and reasonable conclusions.

W. Meade Stith III retired in 2005 from the Army Corps of Engineers, where he supervised work to save shorebirds on its Craney Island Dredged Material Site. The effort received the Virginia Society of Ornithology's Jackson M. Abbott Conservation Award, which honors significant conservators of Virginia's birds or their habitats.

Originally published by BY W. MEADE STITH III.

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