LETTER: Plovers still at risk after 25 years

Written by Scott Hecker/Goldenrod

As silver anniversaries go, this one is a mixed blessing. January 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of protection for the Piping Plover, the rarest shorebird breeding in North America, under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. While the number of nesting pairs has increased, the Piping Plover remains threatened and is unlikely to be removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List any time soon. Twenty-five years ago, there were 790 pairs of Piping Plovers on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina. During the 2010 breeding season, there were approximately 1,800 pairs, a number not only short of the recovery goal of 2,000 pairs but one that has changed little in the past 10 years.

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Piping Plover is scraping nest hollow. © Jim Fenton

To achieve the federal recovery goal and remove the Atlantic Coast piping plover from the U.S. Endangered Species List, 2,000 pairs of plovers must be sustained for five consecutive years, with each nesting pair producing an average of one and a half chicks per year. Given the slowed recovery rate of recent years, it would take decades to achieve 2,000 pairs, and only in one year (1994) of the last 25 years has average productivity achieved the goal of 1.5 chicks per pair.

In Massachusetts, where I have worked most of my career to protect Piping Plovers and their habitats since 1987, the stalled recovery has become even more troubling. Twenty-five years ago there were 137 pairs of Piping Plovers in state. Starting in the early 1990s state and federal guidelines went into effect that restricted off-road vehicles on portions of beaches with Piping Plover chicks. From 1991 to 1999 this assisted their state population rocket from 160 to 501 pairs in just nine years. However, the early success of these protections have since leveled-off and the state plover population has only risen another 74 pairs in the past 12 years to 575 pairs in 2010.

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife, to uphold current ORV use and management practices on Plymouth Beach puts the Piping Plover, other threatened and endangered species, and migratory shorebirds at continued great risk. Goldenrod’s position is that the 1993 Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Guidelines – adopted 18 years ago for managing recreational use of beaches to protect Piping Plovers, terns and their habitats in Massachusetts – were an important first step to protect Piping Plovers and beach habitats from off-road vehicles, but are outdated and contradict peer-reviewed research documenting impacts of off-road vehicles and disruption of life critical behaviors of threatened species.

The critical issue at hand is the proper enforcement of the law and we have a fundamental disagreement with the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife’s interpretation and application of the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. In fact, the MDFW Magistrate, David Hoover, invites Goldenrod to pursue the issue on a court appeal. We are seriously weighing this option.

The fact is that survival of the piping plover is not just about one bird. In its Piping Plover Recovery Plan, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service noted, “The plight of the Piping Plover is an indicator of an entire ecosystem in very serious trouble.” Therefore, the protection of Piping Plover benefits many other species of flora and fauna, as well as the coastal processes that create and sustain beaches.

Catastrophic environmental impacts, such as the 2010 Gulf oil spill further threaten survival of the Piping Plover, where 70 percent of its worldwide population winters. Climate change and rising sea levels, not anticipated in the Piping Plover Recovery Plan, also increase the risk of their survival, nesting on the very beaches that are on the front line of our disappearing coastline.

In 1865, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic work, Cape Cod: “If I were required to name a sound, the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the…peep of the plover.” It is my personal goal and that of the Goldenrod Foundation that in another 150 years we will still understand what Thoreau was referring to and the sweet call of the Piping Plover.

Scott Hecker, Executive Director, Goldenrod Foundation, Duxbury

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