‘Unusual’ number of snowy plovers found dead in riding areas of Oceano Dunes last month

State Parks is urging riders to be cautious in the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area after an “unusual number” of protected snowy plovers were found dead in the riding area of the park last month.

Four snowy plovers were found dead in the SVRA park in the final weeks of August, according to Senior Environmental Scientist Ronnie Glick.

“It is unusual to have that many birds found in the course of a short time period,” Glick told The Tribune in a phone interview Friday.

The four were found between Aug. 19 and Aug. 28. According to Glick, one of the bodies found was too old to be able to determine the cause, while the other three were fresher specimens.

Two of the birds were found in tire tracks in the sand, with evidence of being flattened, while another was found in an area with recent tire tracks, but not in said tracks, according to reports filed with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“If a bird were to be hit, it would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act, and that is a big deal,” Glick said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a big enough staff to watch all these birds every hour of the day.”

If someone were visibly observed by a State Parks worker to hit a snowy plover — something that Glick said he did not believe had ever happened at the park — law enforcement would be called in to determine if if that person were driving negligently or in violation of any of the park’s rules.

“The important thing is that every bird is important, and we take these instances very seriously,” Glick said. “Ultimately, it is our responsibility to manage these populations and mitigate the impacts of the public to these birds. We take that very seriously and do our best to protect this animal while still allowing the public to use the beach.”

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

Why the increase?

Though the number and frequency of recent deaths is unusual, Glick said State Parks does normally find some dead birds at this time of year because the snowy plovers are entering their non-breeding season where they tend to roam around the beach more.

“They will form very loose flocks on the beach, and throughout the day those will move off around the beach,” Glick said. “This is the time when we often find that the birds are in more direct harm’s way.”

The most dead plovers State Parks has ever found in a calendar year was eight in both 2016 and 2018, Glick said.

“We’ve had years where there are zero, we’ve had where there are one or two,” he said. “It really depends.”

While the birds are roaming, Glick said State Parks staff will go out early in the mornings before the park has visitors and place signage in areas where the flocks are, warning drivers to be cautious.

They will then monitor the flocks throughout the day, and move signs around accordingly, he said.

In a news release Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity called for State Parks to implement further measures to prevent plover deaths.

Those included decreasing off-highway vehicle use, prohibiting night riding and making seasonal plvoer habitat closures permanent.

“Pint-sized plovers don’t stand a chance if vehicles and dune buggies are tearing through their beach and dune habitat,” Senior Conservation Advocate Jeff Miller said in the release. “State Parks officials need to reduce off-road vehicle use immediately and rein in riding in areas where protected species are in harm’s way.”

According to the release, the Center threatened to sue State Parks over the same issue in 2017.

Part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is fenced off to off-road vehicles during snowy plover nesting season. Pets, cars, people are banned from the area. The Tribune

Why is it a big deal?

The western snowy plover is listed as a threatened species and protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The tiny bird typically nests on the dunes and other California beaches from March through September (this is when you’ll see fencing erected around the nests as protection from vehicles and beach goers.)

The snowy plover popped up on the threatened species list in 1993. According to Glick, the local population reached a low of about 30-40 breeding adults in the early 2000s.

That number is now well up, and there are about 200 breeding adults in the local district as of the last count, he said.

“We are proud of our conservation efforts and what we we have done,” Glick said.

That effort isn’t over.

Glick said the district is expecting to release a habitat conservation plan in the coming weeks that would help facilitate long-term conservation and protection of the snowy plover.

In the meantime, Glick said he wanted to remind visitors to always pay attention to wildlife when out and about in the State Park.

“Be aware of signs advising you about wildlife, be aware of speed limit signs,” he said, “and be extra cautious of wildlife — they have the right of way.”

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Kaytlyn Leslie writes about business and development for The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Hailing from Nipomo, she also covers city governments and happenings in the South County region, including Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach. She joined The Tribune in 2013 after graduating from Cal Poly with her journalism degree.