A land-use issue has dredged a huge divide between users of Pacific coast beaches. On one side are those who support protection of habitat for an endangered bird; on the other side are those who want to guard their right to use the beach for recreational pursuits. As an inveterate beach hiker and dog owner, yet a vocal supporter of environmental conservation, this is a dilemma that sparked my interest.
Sally O’Neal Coates
Meet The Snowy Plover
It seems that a little bird called the snowy plover is at the heart of this controversy. The snowy plover is a North American shore bird less than 6 inches in length. It lays its eggs in shallow nests in the dry sand above the tide line. The chicks forage for food in the wet and dry sand along the beach before they develop the ability to fly. As a result of this nesting and fledgling behavior, plovers are easily disturbed by human and other beach activity.
Dramatic plover population declines since the 1970s are blamed on shoreline development and the introduction of non-native plants (weeds) and animals (predators) to the areas formerly inhabited by the snowy plover.
Not only has the population of the snowy plover itself declined, many ecologists feel that the plover serves as an “indicator species:” its presence is an indication of ecosystem health. Declining numbers of snowy plovers mean a decline in the health of the overall ecosystem.
As the plight of the plover became recognized, the federal government took notice. In 2001, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released the Western Snowy Plover Draft Recovery Plan. This document serves as a guideline for various jurisdictions in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Adult snowy plover.
Various means of protection have been implemented along the Pacific coast. The most common and contentious have been beach closures and restrictions. Beaches are generally closed or restricted only during the snowy plover breeding season, which varies according to latitude (e.g., mid-March to mid-September in southern Oregon). Some areas impose a “dry sand only” restriction, wherein people can walk or conduct various recreational activities on the sand nearest the water (the area between the low and high-tide mark), but must stay off the dry sand area (the area above the high-tide line and below the vegetation or dune line), where the plovers nest.
Restrictions include prohibitions against specific beach activities that may include kite flying, dog walking, horseback riding, campfires and camping, and use of motor vehicles.
Other protection strategies to support the snowy plover population besides beach closure and restriction include public awareness campaigns, habitat restoration, and predator management.
ORVs Need Habitat, Too
Not everyone is sympathetic with the plight of the plover. Beyond individual dog walkers and off-road vehicle (ORV) users, coastal business owners fear that loss of recreational opportunities on certain beaches will drive tourists elsewhere.
So our little plover has become political. No sooner were restrictions in place along the Coast than anti-restriction organizations and movements began cropping up like beachgrass. Some suggest that anti-predator efforts alone would be effective and that restrictions are overkill. Some claim that the siting of restricted areas is politically motivated.
I’m a big supporter of individual freedoms. I love walking, running, flying kites, and generally besporting myself on the beaches of the Pacific coast. People need places to recreate in order to develop a relationship with the outdoors and learn to love and protect it.
My Vote Goes To The Plover
Credible studies have shown that people, dogs, and recreational activities and vehicles have significant impact on snowy plover mortality. Dog walkers protested loud and long when beach restrictions went into place in the Half Moon Bay region of the central California coast. In one editorial letter, a resident claimed that her dog chased birds including plovers, but never caught or harmed one. However, birds running from dogs or other disturbances may be leaving a nest or chicks unattended.
In this case, I’ll have to call the dog lover’s observations anecdotal when compared to the mortality studies. Besides, common sense says the plovers need protection. When you consider their open nesting pattern and the fact that chicks remain flightless and foraging for food for a full 30 days, you can see that this is a very vulnerable species. (The adults such as the one pictured are fairly easy to see, but the chicks are tiny and speckled, blending in with the sand.)
On the balance, I’ll have to side with the plover and its protectors. I’m sure that politics have come into play in selecting areas to be restricted while exempting other areas from restriction, but I think some effort to maintain the habitat is better than no effort.
Sally O’Neal Coates is a travel writer, dog owner, beach walker, and outdoorswoman who also admits to occasionally hugging a tree. Her commentaries on camping, hiking, fishing, skiing, kayaking, and other outdoor pursuits appear weekly at SportsmansGuide.com.