Fishermen, beachgoers work to loosen plover closures

A four ounce piping plover nest can stop a two ton SUV in its tracks. OR Protection has helped plover proliferation but populations have plateaued — Photo Courtesy of Mass Audobon

Although winter still has us in its icy grip, it won’t be long until the bluefish and the striped bass are biting, the piping plovers are nesting, and beaches across the Cape and Islands are closing.

Striving to find a balance in the increasingly contentious battle between residents and state and federal agencies over mandated beach closures to protect the endangered piping plover, a group of representatives from the Cape and Islands recently gathered at the Dennis Senior Center for the inaugural meeting of the Regional Beach Access Coalition (RBAC).

The Vineyard was represented by Chappaquiddickers Fran and Bob Clay and Ron Domurat of Edgartown, founders of the Martha’s Vineyard Beach Access Coalition (MVBAC). Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent at The Trustees of the Reservations (TTOR), also attended.

“We’re not saying the plovers are the problem,” Mr. Domurat said in a phone call with the Times. “It’s all the state and federal regulations and the way they’re enforced. The towns have no say at the table. The people from Plymouth at the meeting said they spent more money on legal fees fighting environmental groups than their entire Council on Aging budget.”

Plover progress

Since it was designated as a threatened species under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1986, the piping plover has seen a significant surge in population from 790 nesting pairs in 1986 to 1,890 by 2011. The 1996 Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Revised Recovery Plan, prepared by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, established a goal of 2,000 breeding pairs for a minimum of five years, distributed across four regions. The regional goal for New England, 625 pairs, was exceeded in 2008 with 711 pairs, due in large part to growing populations on the Cape and Islands. But growth has stagnated. A massive June storm in 2012 wiped out nests all along the Atlantic Coast, resulting in the lowest number of fledged chicks in 25 years.

“The good news in Massachusetts is plovers have increased in numbers of breeding pairs,” said Jonathan Regosin, Chief of Conservation Science for the Massachusetts department of Fish and Wildlife. “The bad news is there’s been a pretty alarming decline in productivity.  They’re not producing enough young for a stable population. Weather has been one cause. The other big cause is predators. There’s lot of evidence that the number of scavenging predators like skunks and raccoons and crows increase with the waste created by human activity.”

“Last year we fledged 20 chicks on Chappy,” said Chris Kennedy of TTOR. “That’s unheard of. But at Norton Point we had zero. With several thousand nesting terns, each one with two to three eggs, it’s a massive food source and predators like to spend the least amount of energy possible. They know where the food is.”

Beach egress

Each spring, public and private land managers erect hundreds of feet of rope barriers to fence off likely nesting sites on the Vineyard. Last year, Norton Point  was closed to over-sand vehicles (OSV) for 61 days. There were running closures on Chappy, and stretches of Leland Beach were closed for three weeks. “We’ve got some flexibility that the Cape towns don’t have,” said Mr. Kennedy. “If we didn’t have the option of running vehicles along the [Cape Poge] bay side of Chappy, those beaches would have been closed for quite a few days.”

Plover closures on the Cape have been much more severe. In Orleans there have been total beach closures every year since 2006. Last year, roads leading from Nauset Beach parking lot to Chatham were closed for 83 days, from June 2 to August 23. Toward the end of the summer, one chick kept the trail closed for 21 days.

Responding to the growing outcry, this fall Orleans Selectman John Hodgson and Chatham Selectman Sean Summers spearheaded the Outer Beach Coalition (OBC) with other beachfront towns and concerned groups to appeal to state and federal officials for a way to reduce the closures. This year the OBC expanded to become the RBAC.

This past Tuesday, Mr. Hodgson and the RABC scored a significant victory when the Orleans board of selectmen unanimously approved their proposed Habitat Conservation Plan — a 361-page proposal that will allow for a more balanced approach to plover protection.

In the plan, escorted vehicles would be allowed past a maximum of two broods of piping plovers, and up to eight chicks in total. A maximum 200 vehicles per day will be allowed on the beach.  Vehicles would be grouped in caravans of up to 66 cars and each caravan will have escorts, on foot, at the front and sides to look for plovers and their nests. The caravans would leave in the morning between seven and 10 am and return between three and six pm. In a telephone interview with the Times, selectman Hodgson said parents of cranky kids who want to leave before the returning caravan will be out of luck. “We’ll be very upfront about the rules,” he said. “We’ll make exceptions for severe weather and emergencies, but otherwise, this is the deal.” The cost of the three-year plan is estimated to be around $78,000 in the first year and approximately $89,000 the second year.

Section 10

A key to a new plover policy for a beach town is getting a section 10 permit, also known as a take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This permit allows for a certain number of accidental nest damage or plover deaths without federal prosecution. A specified number of birds could be harassed or killed, in exchange for measures that improve the success of the plover population elsewhere.

Mr. Kennedy said that under current federal law, without a Section 10 permit, he could go to jail and be fined up to $100,000 if a plover was run over on TTOR land under his purview.  “If Orleans doesn’t get a section 10, and a plover gets run over, the selectmen could be prosecuted,” he said.

With the exception of one section 10 permit issued to another state agency, no federal or state permits have been approved anywhere on the Atlantic coastline. But Mr. Hodgson is optimistic that that will change in Massachusetts with the help of state fish and wildlife officials. “We’ve had some positive success with state on this,” he said. “State fish and wildlife has bent over backwards, calling us on weekends and nights, and doing a lot of hand holding.”

Mr. Regosin said that the option of applying for a state-wide section 10 permit is being discussed.

Bob Clay of the Martha’s Vineyard Beach Coalition is optimistic that the right balance can be struck on the Vineyard, regardless of the section 10 approval. “I think what happened last year on trustees property was reasonable,” he said. “They [TTOR] got the state to allow them to move around birds easier. In the past they would close a whole beach  It’s like every problem, it just needs to be managed. We just need to use common sense.”