The 1 Percent Versus a Tiny Endangered Seabird

Wealthy residents of Nantucket oppose protections for piping plovers, which prevent them from driving their SUVs on the beach. Really.
Young piping plovers. (Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/'Portland Press Herald' via Getty Images)
Feb 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Visiting Nantucket a few years ago, I was dismayed to hear some of the island’s wealthy retirees complaining that the damned piping plovers were keeping them from their chosen fishing spots. The plovers, small beach-nesting birds, are a threatened species along the Atlantic coast and endangered in the Midwest. And I had naively assumed that people with the money to summer in one of the world’s priciest destinations might have a little sympathy for birds that barely manage to survive at all on the open beach.

Not so. The recreational anglers were determined to drive their off-road vehicles out the sandy spit of land called Great Point to their favorite surfcasting spots, and they were enraged that designated protected areas and buffer zones around plover nests blocked certain areas in breeding season.

So it caught my eye the other day when I saw that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comment on a draft proposal to give Massachusetts beach managers more flexibility in determining how to protect piping plovers. “Flexibility” is often a code word for letting noisy constituents prevail over good science, and my suspicions increased when I read that a FWS spokesperson was describing the change as “a solution that works for people and plovers.”

For such small and unobtrusive birds, piping plovers have elicited an extraordinary amount of animosity over the years. That’s because they like to nest on open beaches, usually just above the high tide line, exactly where humans also go to conduct their sacred summer rituals. The plovers are well camouflaged, making it easy to step on a nest or inadvertently crush a chick under the wheels of an off-road vehicle. That was one reason President Richard Nixon ordered federal wildlife officials in the 1970s to limit off-road-vehicle use in protected areas unless they could demonstrate that it posed no harm to wildlife. President Carter followed up with an executive order to the same effect.

(Photo: Gregory Rec/'Portland Press Herald' via Getty Images)

But both FWS and the National Park Service largely ignored these orders until environmental groups sued in the 1990s. At the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the park service didn’t even require permits for beach driving, much less protect piping plover nesting areas. When Audubon North Carolina and Defenders of Wildlife forced a change, angry locals sent death threats, banned staffers from restaurants, and assaulted them physically and verbally.

The standard method for protecting piping plovers is to put up a ring of fencing around each nest or to close off large areas with “symbolic fencing,” meaning warning signs and marker tape. The vast majority of beaches remain open to human use. But people still often resent having to concede even a fragment of what they perceive as their turf. In Massachusetts, the protests have largely been limited to angry complaining, focused on a few popular protected areas such as the Cape Cod National Seashore and Nantucket’s Great Point.

Massachusetts is also the only major success story for piping plover recovery, having increased its population five-fold, from 139 breeding pairs in 1986 to 689 last year. That’s out of just 1,866 pairs of plovers along the entire coast from North Carolina into eastern Canada. The success in Massachusetts has, however, also been part of the problem because it has required protection and buffer zones across increasing percentages of the beach.

Under the new regulations, some beaches will see activities that have been banned until now, according to Katharine Parsons, director of the coastal water bird program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. For instance, off-road vehicles may be able to “self-escort” in close proximity past piping plover nests if they have a trained passenger walking out in front as a lookout. There will also be increased monitoring of chicks to avoid any losses. Additional money for enforcement, and for mitigation programs aimed at increasing plover productivity, will come from local towns and beach managers, probably paid for from off-road vehicle permit fees. Some of those funds will help control predators, from house cats to coyotes, which often take piping plover chicks.

The new rules could be “risky,” said Parsons, “but we do see long-term benefits.” The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit that manages many Massachusetts beaches for both conservation and recreation, also supports the new rules, according to Russ Hopping, the group’s ecology program director.

But an initiative to escort vehicles past active nests lasted only one summer in Cape Hatteras, warned Jason Rylander, a staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “It took a tremendous amount of park service resources, and escorting one vehicle at a time through narrow passages, you still end up with a line of angry vehicle operators. All the research says it’s not good to have vehicles driving by nests,” he said.

Parsons said the success or failure of the new “flexibility” will depend on the details. If you want to remind federal regulators how important those details can be, make your comment by Feb. 19. The piping plovers will be returning to their nesting sites next month, and the likelihood that they will continue to return for many seasons thereafter may hang in the balance.