National Seashore Becomes Battleground over Endangered Species

*Note, theses are my personal views. If you disagree and decide to comment, please do so in a respectful manner.

What is everyone talking about in the Outer Banks? A bird, but no, they aren’t birders and they don’t want to see them. I’ve watched this story and gathered some facts over the past couple months:

Anyone who calls themselves a conservationist, preservationist, or nature-lover will agree that saving a species, no matter the size or look, is important and should take priority over our recreational preferences. That feeling isn’t echoed by the residents of the Outer Banks, whose lineage in the area goes back into the 1930s when the North Carolina Coast. They believe the National Park Service, which runs Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the Audubon Society, which forced the Park Service to include endangered species management by creating official off-road vehicle guidelines, are destroying the local economy with beach closures meant to protect nesting birds.  See the video below for a brief explanation of their views.

YouTube – Fox News Interviews John Couch.

What’s at Stake

A few species of birds have evolved [read: been there longer than the 1930s] to nest on barrier islands that were void of predators, making it safe to raise young. Enter bridge-building humans that have created a way for predators to spread on to the barrier islands [like foxes and raccoons, species that easily adapt to human landscapes] and that have a preference not to walk down the beach, but to drive their four-wheel drive vehicles on it instead. These ground-nesting species of birds are understandably threatened or endangered now with their prime breeding habitat converted into our playground and invaded by new predators. Most notable is the Piping Plover, whose numbers are lower than 2000 breeding pairs [].  This bird benefitted in the 1940s from the passing of the Migratory Species Act but the increased recreational activity on beaches since World War II has caused the numbered to plummet once again.

In response to the diving population size, the National Park Service, through legal provocation by the Audubon Society and others, has created a temporary management plan that limits beach access when a Piping Plover nest is spotted. This plan includes closing off a radius of 1,000 yards around the nest site in order to provide the hatchlings and parents enough undisturbed habitat to feed in the intertidal zone and to prevent excessive disturbance upon parents tending and protecting the nest, which increases hatching success rates. As a benefit, other species are protected, but the target species, with the lowest population numbers, is the Piping Plover.

Residents have felt economic impacts that they pin on the confusion and hassle caused by the beach closures and many have been forced to close businesses and foreclose on homes, seeking employment elsewhere.  The heritage that they have built there has been devastated. While they are facing hard times, their employment rates aren’t the lowest in the country, nor in their state.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Both sides are very heated and communication has all but broken down between the major groups involved. Confusion has led to distorted facts, unwillingness to listen to arguments, and all-and-all out anger by some stakeholders.

The main problem lies in distrust. Locals don’t believe the numbers that the Park Service and others have gathered, ranging from facts such as buffer zone necessary to prevent the disturbance of the birds [motorized recreation has more of an impact on wildlife; increased nest desertion. See: Wildlife and Recreationists: Ch 5] to the increased visitation to the National Seashore over the past several years. In fact, they are nearly convinced there is some kind of government conspiracy to kick them off their island [the government employees want the place all to themselves and the birds with absolutely no amenities nearby? No visitors = no budget].

On the other hand, can the NPS  trust that off-road vehicle users and other visitors who feel displaced will obey the rules, drive and walk only where they are supposed to, and not run over wildlife and nests?

From 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary:

“Bodie District:

8/27- Two sets of pedestrian tracks entered the filter fence and one individual defecated next to

the nest marker 1.8 miles N of Ramp 23.”

 Although the perhaps the love for one particular species isn’t there, the locals do love the land and feel a deep connection to the Outer Banks. 

If the numbers are crunched, during the nesting season there were no more than approximately 27 miles of 60 closed at any given time, although the locals will mention that the best fishing spots, like Cape Point, were inaccessible [Island Free Press Beach Closures Weekly Report]. Even though there are large buffer zones around the nests, the vast majority do not produce hatchlings. This is in part due to predators that were not indigenous to the previously safe islands, like foxes and raccoons, which the Park Service, under public opposition as well, is trying manage [See “A Plan to Rid Keys of Predator Species“]. In total this year, only 15 Piping Plover chicks fledged out of 33, with 12 breeding pairs, 6 of which nested at Cape Point.²

It’s All about Appearances

While it’s no doubt the local Outer Banks economy has taken a hit, so has the rest of the country.  Interestingly, tourism numbers are up at the National Seashore this past year and that trend is reflected country-wide as well. New York City experienced a rise in tourists, as did Las Vegas¹ last year. The same can be said for other North Carolina National Park Service Units along the coast as well, such as the Fort Raleigh and Cape Lookout [NPS Stats: Visitation by Month/Year]. Seemingly out of frustration, Outer Banks residents can’t blame the intangible tourism industry and instead point to one species of bird.

The National Seashore, forced into compliance with the rest of the units in the National Park Service to uphold the mission to protect for future generations the cultural and natural resources, has found itself incapable of calming the locals and the environmental groups.  Confusion has resulted from different management practices for different species. For example, a national practice for sea turtle nests is to mark off a small area around the nest since sea turtles do not forge on the beach but immediately leave and enter the water.  Since sea turtle hatch out primarily at night, the National Seashore has night closures to prevent turtles from being run over. Birds, on the other hand, linger on the beach until the hatchlings can fly and are diurnal, meaning they roam during the day when peak visitor usage occurs.  Their foraging habits require them to cover some beach in order to secure proper food intake. If repeatedly flushed from an area, the amount of food that the bird consumes greatly diminishes. Hence, the two different species requiring the same habitat for widely varying amounts of time has confused many as to why such strict guidelines are now in place.

It seems the anger over these management issues has peaked due to increased attention paid to the management proposal and temporary management plans.  Piping Mad: Fair People at the Mercy of a Government Gone Fowl is a documentary style portrayal of the hardships that the locals face. While very short on actual facts, the pain the people have is tangible. A noticeable omission in the film is the lack of explanation as to why the species is being protected, methods and research in determining how to do so, and federal laws stating it must be so [Migratory Species Act, anyone?]. Also omitted is the amount, where and duration of beach closures. Like stated above, it’s never been all of the beach.

The Bottom Line

It is imperative that all parties involved find a way to protect the Piping Plover while allowing for recreational access.  If the species disappears, it’s not only a failure  for the National Park Service, in charge of protecting our wild treasures, but the locals and ultimately the American public, who have successfully saved other species from extinction in the past through preservation efforts by those like John Muir and conservation movements by leaders such as Aldo Leopold.

To let the Piping Plover go the way of the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet would be a travesty and undo what so many, for generations, worked for. A success story like the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon on the other hand would shine the proverbial spotlight of history on the Seashore and local community as champions of conservation and cooperation.


² 9/10/2010 Resource Management Summary