California Sued for Failing to Protect Shorebird From Off-Roaders

Conservationists blasted California over its continued refusal to protect the endangered snowy plover from being crushed by dune buggies and ATVs at Oceano Dunes State Park.

An adult snowy plover. (Photo courtesy Brian Sullivan / Macaulay Library)

(CN) — A day before Oceano Dunes State Park is set to reopen following a monthslong closure during the Covid-19 pandemic, conservationists sued California on Thursday on claims of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to prevent an endangered shorebird from being crushed to death by off-road vehicles on the beach.

Oceano Dunes, which includes 1,500 acres of sand dunes and six miles of beachfront in San Luis Obispo County, is the only California beach which allows off-road vehicle recreation. Like most public parks, it has been mostly closed during 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is set to reopen Friday, with phase one allowing up to 1,000 “street legal” vehicles including jeeps and trucks on the dunes from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In a complaint filed in the Central District of California on Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity said allowing vehicles onto the sand after dusk is particularly dangerous for endangered western snowy plovers who remain on the beach after breeding season ends in September.

The Pacific Coast population of snowy plover has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1993.

“Nesting generally occurs in Central and Southern California between March and September,” the Center for Biological Diversity claims in the 12-page complaint.

“During fall and winter, outside of the nesting season, many snowy plovers continue to inhabit these beaches and remain at risk from off-road vehicle use on beaches where they are foraging,” the group claims.

It’s during the fall and winter — after the State Parks Department has removed temporary fencing installed to protect birds during nesting season — that the most snowy plovers are killed by motorized vehicle activities on the beach, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

ATVs ride the beach in Oceano, California. (Photo courtesy California State Parks)

In 2016, four western snowy plovers were found dead in tire tracks between October and November, according to an annual report on Oceano Dunes prepared by State Parks cited in the complaint.

The Endangered Species Act requires an “incidental take permit” for activities that can cause harm, injury or death to listed animals or destroys their habitats. But the California Department of Parks and Recreation does not have the federal permit to allow continued off-road vehicle recreation at Oceano Dunes.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue for violations of the Endangered Species Act in 2017 but held off a few years while waiting for a habitat conservation plan by State Parks to get approved.

So far, the plan is still in the works despite direction from the California Coastal Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordering State Parks to mitigate western snowy plover deaths at Oceano Dunes.

“We don’t think they are operating in good faith at this point,” Center for Biological Diversity senior conservation advocate Jeff Miller said in an interview.

“I don’t understand why State Parks continues to go in the opposite direction they’ve been told to go in by Fish and Wildlife and the Coastal Commission, which have recommended that seasonal fencing be permanent,” Miller added.

Reopening the beach to vehicles following the months-long pandemic closure is particularly troubling to the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservationists as the snowy plovers took advantage of the beach closures and have expanded their nesting and foraging area in the vehicles’ absence.

A snowy plover chick. (Photo courtesy California State Parks)

“The current status quo on the ground at Oceano Dunes is that snowy plovers are nesting and foraging more widely along the beach and foredunes at Oceano Dunes than they have in years where off-road motorized vehicles were riding on the beach and the dunes and those and other motorized vehicles were parking on the beach and foredunes,” the center claims.

In an email, State Parks declined to comment on pending litigation but said it will continue its plan to reopen Oceano Dunes and adjacent Pismo Beach starting Friday.

The Center for Biological Diversity wants a federal judge to declare the state is violating the Endangered Species Act and to bar continued off-road vehicle use at Oceano Dunes without an “incidental take permit” issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The California Natural Resources Agency, also a named defendant in the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

An email seeking comment from off-road advocacy group Friends of Oceano Dunes was also not returned by press time.

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