State presses Trustees on shorebird beach rules

The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR) owns or manages approximately 15 miles of over-sand vehicle trails accessible with a permit. From Katama to Cape Poge gut at the end of Chappaquiddick, vehicle beach trails give residents and visitors access to uncrowded fishing, clamming, and picnicking spots, and a beach experience that is unique to the Vineyard.

Over the years, The Trustees have performed a delicate balancing act designed to protect nesting shorebirds and still provide beach access as soon as possible, sometimes by rerouting trails behind existing dunes.

This summer, that flexibility will be sharply curtailed because the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program has indicated that if piping plover chicks should wander north of Dike Bridge, the existing dunes and grass do not provide a sufficient physical barrier between the sole vehicle access trail leading to Cape Poge and the beach.

That view represents a change, not in the guidelines, but in the agency’s evaluation of those dunes.

State guidelines say that when chicks are on a barrier beach, managers have to draw a line through where the chicks are located and close shoreline to shoreline, and provide a buffer 100 yards up and down the beach. No vehicles are allowed near that zone.

However, when there is a physical barrier, for example a steep dune face or heavy vegetation that keeps the chicks from feeding on one side, vehicles may be allowed to bypass chick sites.

After years in which the dunes north of Leland Beach were considered sufficient to prevent piping plover chicks from wandering onto vehicle trails, Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife zoologist Scott Melvin has determined that is no longer the case.

Off-road vehicle users currently can only access the beach at the Dike Bridge. Once across they may turn right and use an inner or outer trail traveling south to reach Wasque Point, a popular fishing spot. Or they may turn left and travel north along a single trail that connects to an inner and outer trail leading to the 516-acre Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge.

Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard TTOR superintendent, said three pairs of plovers are nesting along the south section of Leland Beach in the direction of Wasque, two are located on the Edgartown side of Norton Point Beach and three pairs are out along the elbow of Cape Poge.

A returning tern colony is situated about one and a half miles down Norton Point beach on the Katama side. “We can probably expect to have a colony in excess of 2,000 birds when all is said and done,” he said.

The plover eggs are expected to hatch in mid-June. What is uncertain is what the chicks on Leland Beach will do once they begin feeding.

If they should move north along the beach, TTOR would be required to close the Leland trails and the Cape Poge vehicle trail that runs behind the primary dune and along the channel that connects Cape Poge Bay to Poucha Pond, shutting off access to miles of beach.

“The guidelines are the guidelines, and the only interpretation that allows us to provide for vehicle access through areas where there are chicks is if we can prove to the Commonwealth that there is a physical barrier,” Mr. Kennedy said.

“Dr. Melvin did not look at the dunes north of Leland, but he did tell us that the dunes along the length of Leland do not constitute a sufficient barrier in his opinion. Likewise he told us the dune system on Norton Point does not constitute an adequate physical barrier.

“The dunes north of Leland, part of Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, look exactly like the dunes that run the length of Leland, thus the inference we took away is that nowhere on our property does he believe that we have an adequate physical barrier, which would allow us to route vehicles around shorebird chicks.”

Take not

In a telephone conversation last week, Mr. Melvin said he visited Chappaquiddick in late March. “My interpretation of the conditions out there on Leland and East Beach was that there were not physical barriers to prevent plover chicks from moving back and forth from the ocean side to the pond side,” he said.

Mr. Melvin said the birds have exhibited that behavior in the past, according to shore bird monitors. Asked about The Trustees’ track record of protecting shore birds, Mr. Melvin referenced one chick run over by a vehicle in the mid-90s, ironically during a visit by state wildlife officials.

Mr. Melvin said the guidance his agency is providing The Trustees is the best guidance “about what needs to be done to prevent plover or tern chicks from being killed, harmed, or harassed.”

He added, “It is our experience, our belief, and our recommendation that if vehicles are traversing those inner dune routes when there are unfledged plover chicks around there is a reasonable likelihood that they could be killed.”

Mr. Melvin discounted past practices and said he was not certain what The Trustees’ interpretations were in the past. He said that if the conditions were the same in the past then The Trustees were taking a big risk. “And clearly someone was taking a big risk last year,” he said.

The reference was to an incident last summer when the then-beach manager allowed a vehicle to traverse a trail where tern chicks were present. That resulted in a required report to the state of a “take,” language that encompasses any disturbance including the death of a protected bird.

“That was completely inconsistent with state guidelines and we almost had those chicks run over,” he said.

Asked what he would say to the many people on Martha’s Vineyard who face the likelihood that they may not be able to traverse the beach, Mr. Melvin said, “I would explain what the laws are that protect these birds, what the performance standards are, and why we believe it is necessary to impose them. Clearly, this is nothing new.”

TTOR will comply

The Trustees, Massachusetts oldest private nonprofit conservation group, manages the 516-acre Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge and 200-acre Wasque Point property.

In April 2006 TTOR took over management of the county-owned Norton Point Beach following years of neglect.

The Trustees’ mission promotes responsible use of its properties as a means of enlisting public support. Trustees rangers patrol the beaches to assist visitors and protect the properties.

Over the past decades new, more stringent, state and federal regulations have affected beach managers across the state. Potential tern and piping plover habitat must be marked off and protected. TTOR currently employs three fulltime seasonal bird monitors.

Mr. Kennedy said it is still too early to say what the season will bring in the way of closures. Natural predators, wave overwash, and weather conditions all play a role in determining nesting behavior, chick survival and feeding habits.

As for previous interpretations of the degree to which the dune provided a barrier, Mr. Kennedy said The Trustees have always been very upfront with the state about beach management. He expressed surprise at the notion that somehow the beach had slipped under Mr. Melvin’s radar.

“We have always been very upfront with the state about what we are doing and as far as our interpretation of the guidelines,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I do not know what to say if Dr. Melvin wasn’t aware of it. Clearly, we’ve never tried to hide any of that.”

Mr. Kennedy said that under the law the Trustees were required to report the incident last summer when one of its tour buses stopped right on top of Least Tern chicks. “That constitutes a take and we are required to inform the Commonwealth.”

Mr. Kennedy said he did not know the extent to which that incident factored into state review. “There is no question that was a mistake on our part but we have been committed and we stay committed to adhering to the guidelines and adhering to the Endangered Species Act.”