Environmental group may sue state to protect Oceano Dunes snowy plovers

A snowy plover scurries across the beach near the entrance to the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Wildlife Refuge in October 2016.
A snowy plover scurries across the beach near the entrance to the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Wildlife Refuge in October 2016. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

An environmental group says it may file a lawsuit seeking to expand existing protections for snowy plovers following the discovery last year of six crushed carcasses of the endangered birds at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday filed a formal notice of intent to sue the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the area, in federal court for not better safeguarding the animals from motorized vehicle use at the park.

Oceano Dunes, with its 1,500 acres of sand dunes and 5.5 miles of beachfront area, is the only park in the state that allows street-legal and off-highway motorized vehicles onto the beach, which is the western snowy plover’s natural habititat.

“They were found crushed in tire tracks,” Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the nonprofit, said of the six dead plovers in an email Friday. “We are hoping that State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will respond and move quickly to put safeguards in place to stop the mortalities.”

State Parks and the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, which has oversight of the protection of endangered species, have until Sept. 13 to respond to the notice. A representative from State Parks’ legal division said Friday they haven’t reviewed the notice and don’t comment on pending litigation.

In the letter to Parks and Recreation Director Lisa Mangat, Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and other state and federal officials, the Center’s legal counsel wrote that although State Parks has adopted nesting season management plans that address some impacts to the birds, harm continues to occur.

Western snowy plovers have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1993, yet their population continues to decline.

The Audubon Society lists the snowy plover as a “priority bird” and cites human disturbances as a leading cause of the shorebirds’ failed nesting attempts. Since 1999, about 18,000 acres across California, Oregon and Washington have been designated as critical habitat for plovers by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Snowy plovers nest and breed in the Oceano Dunes area between March and September, with birds returning every year to the same nesting spots, generally in flat open areas such as beaches and sandspits. Many of the birds remain in the area throughout the winter, when they are left vulnerable to vehicular disturbance while foraging on the beach, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The park’s operational plan does not contain any permits that allow for the incidental “take” of any endangered animals within its boundaries. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned State Parks that it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act and expressed concerns with the state’s delay in developing a habitat conservation plan to protect the animals.

This week’s action by the nonprofit follows a similar notice it sent in 2009, after which protective measures were increased at the beach and plover deaths declined, Anderson said. But with plover deaths again on the rise, Anderson said a lawsuit could be necessary to save the rare and fragile birds.

“This is not about closing the area to vehicles,” Anderson said. “We believe plovers can thrive with protections in place to prevent mortalities.”

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