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Where the Birds Are
Even on beaches that allow ORVs, Massachusetts sets the standard for protecting piping plovers.

The fabled beaches of Cape Cod National Seashore and nearly all large undeveloped sandy beaches in Massachusetts function as crucial nesting habitat for the Atlantic population of piping plovers. Weighing in at two ounces, these tiny, fluffy, sandy-colored shorebirds have been struggling for survival since they were first listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986, when just 550 pairs were counted from Maine to North Carolina. In stark contrast to the situation at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, wildlife managers and park service personnel in Massachusetts are setting the gold standard for piping plover management.

Still, wherever this diminutive animal goes, vehicles are sure to follow, and Cape Cod is no exception. Take the summer of 2006, when the plovers took to nesting in ORV access areas on the seashore’s outer beaches. Because park service personnel at the seashore actually adhere to federal and state guidelines for the recovery of the species, an eight-and-a-half-mile ORV driving corridor, from Race Point in Provincetown to Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, was closed for 31 days during the height of summer until the chicks fledged. Fishermen and campers, who had paid anywhere from $50 for the week to $150 for ORV access permits, were frustrated. Some were downright mad. The Massachusetts Beach Buggy Association’s newsletter fumed about needing “available means to get us in and talk with the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” and demanded to know why “beaches that encourage [vehicle] access have such booming populations of this little bird?”

In fact, the Atlantic population of piping plovers has been making something of a comeback, at least in Massachusetts, where conservation efforts are aggressive (suitable nesting areas are fenced off even before the piping plovers arrive). In 1985 the 40-mile-long Cape Cod seashore hosted 18 plover pairs; in 2006, 73 pairs were counted, 33 of them in the ORV corridor. Zoologist Scott Melvin of the endangered species unit of the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife puts plover numbers statewide at 500 pairs. “I’m very concerned about the inconsistency of management going on at Cape Hatteras. After all, our birds winter on those beaches," says Melvin. “Why is Massachusetts being put into the position of making a disproportionate conservation effort?”

Ironically, revenues from ORV permits pay for the four or five field biological technicians who monitor seashore-managed beaches for plover and tern nests. Chief ranger Steve Prokop admits that when he first arrived at the seashore he was surprised to see people driving on the beach, but he says every that year there’s less ORV activity than the prior year. “And that’s because of the success of the recovery plan for plovers. There’s never eight miles available during the summer nesting season. And we’re seeing a rapid decline in the number of people purchasing access permits.” In addition to nest monitoring, five park service rangers patrol the driving corridor, enforcing the law and writing tickets to those who exceed the 5 mph speed limit, “If anyone even thinks about driving on the wrack line, their permit is revoked immediately,” he says. Prokop adds that drivers must watch a video to review park service rules. “But you’d be amazed at how careful people are,” he says. “In fact, often they’re the park’s eyes and ears for protecting the nests. They self-police—if they didn’t we wouldn’t be able to allow them here. They’re out there to fish the premier fishing grounds on the East Coast. In 25 years there’s only been one incident of a plover’s nest being taken.”

This winter, after a flurry of meetings attended by the ORV contingent, environmentalists, and other stakeholders, the seashore announced some contingency plans for next summer that would open an additional half-mile of beach to drivers as well as the opening of access points earlier in the season. Still, if plovers are spotted in nesting in these areas, all bets are off.

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