Defenders in Action: Birds and Turtles Benefit From Beach Protections

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At least 15 piping plover chicks fledged this year at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

© Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Stock

© Tom Vezo/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Stock

As sea turtles and nesting birds struggle to survive in the Gulf of Mexico, farther north at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina things are looking up for the federally threatened piping plovers and endangered loggerheads.

In August, a federal judge upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of critical habitat for the winter plover population at the seashore. Defenders backed the designation and intervened in the February 2009 court challenge from a group of off-road vehicle users.  And thanks in part to another 2007 Defenders’ lawsuit that resulted in new limits on beach driving in shorebird nesting areas, piping plover nesting activity has dramatically improved.

In recent years, off-road vehicle use has increased exponentially at the seashore, with as many as 2,200 vehicles traveling on the beach in a given day, contributing to a steady decline of nesting wildlife. At least 15 piping plover chicks fledged this breeding season, a record number since 1992 when monitoring began.  Prior to Defenders’ involvement, piping plover numbers within Cape Hatteras National Seashore had reached an all-time low with no chicks hatched at all in 2002 and 2004.

Night-driving restrictions imposed as a result of the lawsuit have also aided sea turtles. National Park Service has now counted more than 131 sea turtle nests, making this the best year ever for nests.  

“Such successful nesting and fledging on the seashore is evidence of how reasonable driving restrictions can benefit birds and other wildlife,” Jason Rylander, Defenders’ staff attorney.

But problems persist at the seashore, as evidenced by the death of a female loggerhead sea turtle that was attempting to nest in June. She was struck and dragged about 12 feet by an off-road vehicle and her eggs were strewn across the sand on Ocracoke Island. Another nearby loggerhead sea turtle nest was also run over by one or more ORVs and all the eggs were crushed.

In response, Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center called for the National Park Service to immediately install barriers on ramps to seashore beaches from sunset until the nightly turtle patrol clears the beach to enforce driving restrictions. “The current practice of posting signs regarding the nighttime beach driving restrictions during turtle nesting season did not deter the off-road vehicle drivers and did not protect the turtle,” says Rylander. “The death of this rare turtle could have and should have been prevented.”

Prompted by Defenders’ lawsuit, the park service is expected to have a final management plan for the seashore—that would continue this night-time driving prohibition during nesting season—out by next spring.

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