War Rages on Cape Hatteras
The Interior Department has pledged to put wildlife before recreation in our national parks, but on a North Carolina national seashore, it's letting off-road vehicles run amok, imperiling birds and people.
The loudest, ugliest voices are those of the Orwellian-named Outer Banks Preservation Association, whose flier reads: "The Endangered Species Act has become the favorite 'tool' of the radical environmentalists who want to obstruct development, resource extraction, many public works projects, and also YOUR rights to recreate responsibly on YOUR public lands. . . . The radical enviro-crazies and Hollywood fat-cat sycophants who want to shut you out of YOUR public lands unless you are one of the enviro-elite are pulling out all the stops to water down or kill the rewrite [of what amounted to an Endangered Species Act repeal bill sponsored by soon-to-be ex-Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA)] . . . . Remember the ESA has been perverted and prostituted by the eco-wackos; it isn't about resources these days. It is all about access. They HATE to see you on 'their' beach with your kids, family, coolers, surfing or fishing gear, and especially your ORV."
With the warm sea wind in our faces and brown pelicans skimming the waves, Golder, Maddock, and I stood next to the symbolic fencing at Cape Point on Hatteras Island. To our left, in the open vehicle area, the sand was clean and white. But to our right it was festooned with seaweed behind which sanderlings hunkered. "Wrack," as it's called, is vital to beach birds because it provides rich habitat for their invertebrate prey as well as protection from the wind. ORV tires destroy wrack.
In 2005 the seashore failed to get its symbolic fencing up before April 1, thereby violating guidelines set forth in the Fish and Wildlife Service's piping plover recovery plan. In 2006 it got the fencing up in time, but mostly where it wasn't needed--i.e., marginal fishing areas, where it wouldn't offend. Then, when bird-breeding behaviors were observed in unfenced areas, the seashore delayed or failed to take action. The popular beaches--at Cape Point, South Beach, Bodie Island, Hatteras Inlet, and Ocracoke, for example--all had legal ORV traffic in front of unfledged shorebirds or waterbirds.
In 2006 black skimmers at Cape Point failed on their first nesting attempt. Some re-nested and were incubating on July Fourth, when there were 17 documented instances of trespass. Fireworks were set off illegally. In the mid-1980s there were 1,000 pairs of colonial waterbirds at Cape Point. Now there are fewer than 100.
That decline reflects a breach of law. Thirty-five years ago President Nixon issued an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to issue ORV-use regulations within six months. In 1978 (seven and a half years late) the seashore hatched a "draft interim management plan," thereby eliciting histrionics from the ORV lobby. Management decided not to finalize it. Since then the seashore has, when convenient, operated under the interim plan, a document rife with deficiencies such as suggested closures for nesting birds that the Interior Department's own consultants say are grossly inadequate. "At the beginning of the 2006 season the seashore said they were going to follow their newly minted Draft Interim Protected Species Management Strategy plan," said Maddock. "As the season wore on and that plan would have caused closures they deviated even from their own lax guidelines."
Diminished as they are, the colonial waterbirds at Cape Point and adjacent South Beach are still an important part of the seashore's production. But after predators destroyed many of the nests of least terns, common terns, and black skimmers in 2006, the seashore opened South Beach back up to ORVs. Then, when the remaining eggs hatched, it didn't put up fencing.
Not far from the point, in the ephemeral ponds created by rain and overwash, we watched three diminutive birds with sand-colored backs, white bellies, black breast bands, and orange legs and bills as they alternately dashed and froze along the moist edges. They were piping plovers. There had been a successful nest at Cape Point this year--the only one for the entire seashore.
In June 2005, at Hatteras Inlet, also on Hatteras Island, we heard the clear peep-lo of a piping plover, and one nest fledged three chicks. But in 2006 there was no production. In April 2006 the seashore had hosted an informational meeting here for interested parties, which in this case consisted of all the ORV leaders and one environmentalist--Maddock. "I'm GPS-ing the fence posts so I can know where the closure is," he told me. "And I hear a piper vocalizing. I look up, and there is a male bird scraping [breeding behavior in which the birds excavate nest depressions]. One of the seashore's biological technicians and I tell the superintendent: 'You have to move the fencing out because there isn't an adequate buffer.' He moved the fencing out six to eight feet. But the Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan called for at least another 150 feet. The birds stayed about a week and a half more, were disturbed multiple times, then quit scraping."
There was an oystercatcher nest here in 2006, but it wasn't given an adequate buffer either, and the birds abandoned.