Coastal Watchdog Orders California Beach Closed to Protect Nesting Birds

Piping plover chicks like these have more success nesting on natural sandbars than on human-built habitat. (D. Borden)

(CN) — Endangered California shorebirds who took advantage of pandemic beach closures to expand their nesting area on a Northern California beach won’t be evicted, the California Coastal Commission announced Wednesday after it reached an agreement with State Parks to keep the beach closed through the fall.

Western snowy plovers are one of the most threatened shorebirds in North America and have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1993. The birds breed along California’s coast, including at Oceano Dunes between March and September.

But Oceano Dunes is the only beach in California which allows off-road vehicle recreation, an activity which has impacted the nesting habitat of the birds and has drawn the ire of conservationists.

Due to the pandemic, Oceano Dunes has been closed for off-road vehicle recreation and camping, though it is open for pedestrian beachgoers. In the absence of noisy ATVs and dune buggies, the snowy plovers expanded their nesting area beyond the fenced-in protection zone, but employees of State Parks attempted to deter them by kicking up the nesting scrapes male birds build to attract mates and placing shiny mylar ribbons to deter the birds from nesting in the area.

When the Coastal Commission learned about the deterrents State Parks employed to scare off the birds — due to a whistleblowing investigation by the Center for Biological Diversity — its executive director Jack Ainsworth issued a rarely used consent executive director cease-and-desist order to stop the deterrent activities, which also included grading the dunes with bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

Ainsworth said during Wednesday’s virtual Coastal Commission meeting the order was signed by California State Parks Director Lisa Mangat late Tuesday night.

“The shutdown of the park due to the Covid crisis really presented an unusual situation whereby these snowy plovers took advantage of these now open and undisturbed areas of the beach and dunes to nest,” Ainsworth said.

“It’s really important we acted quickly to provide the necessary protections for the plovers and their habitat and their nesting regardless of how inconvenient and difficult that may have been,” he added, calling the beach closure “another one of those sacrifices” made during the pandemic.

The commission’s enforcement chief Lisa Hagge noted while the order is enforceable, it is focused on the snowy plovers and their habitat and does not address the contentious issue of “whether dune riding is appropriate in the area at all.”

While the order prevents State Parks from reopening the area to off-road vehicle traffic, Hagge and Ainsworth both pointed out reopening was unlikely given the surge in Covid-19 cases California has seen this summer.

Center for Biological Diversity senior conservation advocate Jeff Miller told the commissioners the beach closure could be a chance to boost the snowy plovers population after reduced nesting success in Oceano Dunes the past couple years.

He said on Tuesday he documented 54 adult plovers north of the marker where the beach is closed and outside the fenced-off nesting areas subject to the beach closure order between the commission and State Parks.

“As soon as the vehicles stopped running on the beach, they [plovers] immediately showed us the areas they want to be using, with almost half of those nesting outside those regularly fenced in areas,” Miller said in an interview.

Miller said he was tipped off about State Parks deterrent activities and the agency’s response to a records request by the Center for Biological Diversity confirmed state employees were interfering with the birds’ nesting.

“I think they [State Parks] would have continued efforts to prevent plovers from nesting in the area if they hadn’t been caught. We’re really pleased the Coastal Commission stepped in and forced them to do the right thing for the rest of the nesting season,” Miller said.

In a statement, State Parks said it is working with the commission to “ensure the safety of visitors and to adopt protective measures for the threatened western snowy plover. To achieve these goals, State Parks will continue to restrict OHV access through Oct. 1, 2020 to Oceano Dunes. In the long term, the state continues to work with local, state and federal agencies to address long-standing concerns about air quality, conservation and public access to Oceano Dunes.”

The consent executive director cease-and-desist order expires Oct. 5. The commission will consider other agenda items related to Oceano Dunes at its meeting Thursday, including a permit amendment to its dust control mitigation program due to the off-road vehicle recreation.

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