On the Beach with Endangered Species

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Driving down the beach I came across a group of three piping plovers today mixed in with a large group of sanderlings. As these little fellows were quite easily spooked by people but seemed relatively at ease with passing vehicles, I remained in my truck and simply propped my lens up on my window. Vehicles always make for a great blind as many animals have become quite accustomed to them. Not only did this allow me to work my way in pretty close to the piping plovers, but the angle from which I was shooting created this nice reflection in the wet sand.

These birds are at the heart of quite a bit of conflict on the Outer Banks these days with much of the local community divided into two camps – pro birds and pro unrestricted beach driving on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches out across a ribbon of sand some 30 miles off the North Carolina mainland. Since the national seashore was designated, it has been a hotbed for outdoor recreation. The cape is said to have the largest waves on the East Coast, while the winds that blow across this giant sandbar, the same winds that first enticed the Wright brothers, draw in kite boarders from around the country. Yet, the real crown jewel of this National Seashore, is fishing.


Hatteras Island’s economy is not like the neighboring tourist economy along the northern stretches of the Outer Banks. The health and wealth of this island’s economy is heavily rooted in fishing. Though many residents continue to make their living from commercial fishing, the meat and potatoes of the area come from those who vacation here for the recreational surf fishing. As the cold nutrient rich waters flow south from the arctic upon the back of the Labrador Current, it collides with the warm tropical waters of the Gulf Stream as it heads north. The result of this collision is one of the most productive fisheries south of the Grand Banks. On any given day during the summer months, the beaches around the cape are lined with 4×4 trucks backed up to the ocean. With coolers of beer and fishing rods in place, the tourists and locals alike sit poised to catch their limits for the day. All of this stands to change however.


President Nixon, in 1972, issued an executive order obligating all national parks to create a management plan concerning off road vehicle (ORV) use. Cape Hatteras National Seashore however, neglected to follow through with this management plan. Instead, for the last 36 years, the national seashore has given free and unrestricted access to people who wish to drive their trucks on the beach. The result has been devastating to listed species of both colonial nesting birds and three species of sea turtles.


For this reason, in 2007 the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, filed suite against Cape Hatteras National Seashore for failure to create an ORV management plan. As Cape Hatteras provides critical habitat for numerous threatened and endangered species of both birds and sea turtles, Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife pointed out that nesting success on these beaches has plummeted by 84% since 1997 as ORV use along the beaches have risen.


The US District Court judge who presided over the hearing ruled that the National Park Service was in fact guilty of never fulfilling their duty to create an official ORV plan and that for this reason nesting success had hit rock bottom. The judged then gave the NPS until December 31, 2010 to complete the ORV management plan and outlined specific requirements for the protection of certain key species such as the piping plover and oystercatcher until that point. The Park Service, in compliance with the decree, closed off three primary areas of the national seashore to ORV use due to the presence of nesting activity in the area – something that had never been done before in those areas due to their popularity with fishermen.


All of this did not sit well with the outspoken ORV groups on the Outer Banks, and as a result, this once peaceful vacation destination has flared into a hotbed of political turmoil. Locals who have spoken out against the ORV groups in favor of regulating beach driving have had their addresses and telephone numbers posted on websites and forums and received threatening phone calls.  People associated with the national seashore have been thrown out of local coffee shops – businesses once known for their progressiveness and eco-friendly atmosphere. Everywhere you look bumper stickers adorn 4×4 trucks that state things like: “piping plover tastes like chicken,” or “I love piping plovers fried crispy with fries and a drink.” Some restaurants in the area now offer what they call “piping plover pot pie.” In one of the more theatrical protests to the beach closures, some 200 trucks lined the beaches in order to spell out “HELP US” – an act that the local media ate up with much enthusiasm. Numerous websites have sprung up as well, such as www.savehatteras.org.


Since the closures, there have been countless acts of defiance and outright sabotage. Despite the imposition of $5,000 fines and the threat of up to 6 months imprisonment, people are trespassing and destroying nests. Sea turtle eggs have been dug up, smashed, and the pieces scattered about. People have driven through the fences for the sole purpose of ringing donuts overtop of colonial nesting sites. There has even been an attempt to set fire to the dune grass in one of the enclosures. All of this because the Park Service closed off less than 12 of the 66 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore that are open to ORV use.


Up and down the eastern seaboard, the frequency of piping plover, oyster catcher, and black skimmer nests have been on the rise. Even Cape Cod, another popular beach driving destination, has come to grips with balancing the need to regulate use of their beaches for the sake of these birds. Yet in Cape Hatteras National Seashore alone, the numbers have been on a steady nose dive.




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