Piping Plover Protection Progress

Piping Plover. Photo: USFWS
Piping Plover. Photo: USFWS

In recent months there have been some developments in the legal protections for the endangered Piping Plover. In early November, the National Park Service (NPS) released five alternatives for the management of off-road vehicles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore to protect the plover, other shorebirds, and breeding turtles. Beach access by vehicles at Hatteras has been a point of contention between conservation organizations, concerned over the threat posed to wildlife, and recreation groups, who want to maximize beach driving opportunities.


Defenders of Wildlife and National Audubon Society had sued the Park Service in 2007 for failure to have an off-road vehicle management plan for the Seashore, pending the completion of a long-term negotiated rulemaking process. The groups settled the suit in April 2008, resulting in implementation of interim management procedures. These included beach closures for vehicles and pedestrians at sites on Bodie Island spit, Cape Point, Hatteras spit, and Ocracoke Island, and expanded buffers around active breeding sites.


The five management alternatives just released by NPS pertain to the long-term rulemaking process, which is not scheduled for completion until 2011, until which time, the temporary measures will remain in place. The agency plans to have a Draft Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the five management alternatives completed and open for public comment by fall 2009.


In late October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a final rule on the designation of Critical Habitat for wintering plovers in North Carolina. Critical Habitat (CH) is designated under the Endangered Species Act for places deemed central to the recovery of a threatened animal or plant, and may include areas not currently occupied by the species. A CH designation can apply to federal lands or state and private lands when affected by federally funded projects, prohibits activities harmful to that species, but does not imply refuge status. It also mandates that federal agencies consult with FWS before undertaking any programs or issuing permits that may affect the habitat.


The Piping Plover has been at the center of a series of legal actions by Defenders and other groups, who had sued the Service as far back as 1996 for failure to designate CH for the species. In 2000, a court ruled in favor of Defenders, and ordered the Service to designate CH for the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains plover populations. However, the Service declared that it was unable to distinguish these birds from other Piping Plovers on the wintering grounds, and so designated CH for the entire species from North Carolina to Texas.

In 2003, following a challenge by Dare and Hyde counties in North Carolina, and the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, an off-road vehicles advocacy group, the Service was forced to re-evaluate the CH designation in the state. The final rule resulting from that process is very similar to the original designation, consisting of 2,043 acres in four areas of Dare and Hyde counties.


“The Critical Habitat designation is appropriate, and will hopefully provide protection for wintering plovers, particularly at Cape Hatteras,” said Jason Rylander, Staff Attorney with Defenders of Wildlife.

There are currently only 6,000 or so Piping Plovers left..The species is listed as Endangered in the Great Lakes, and Threatened elsewhere in the United States. It is also listed as Endangered in Canada.

North Carolina is extremely important for Piping Plovers during all phases of their annual cycle. Few other states have sites that retain their importance during the nesting, winter, and both migrations. The critical habitat designation is great news. Hopefully, NPS will select an off-road vehicle management alternative that provides seasonal protections for Piping Plovers at important locations, while continuing to allow recreational access to the Seashore.