Birds on Cape Hatteras National Seashore will get more protection from off-road vehicles under a proposed settlement filed in federal court. If Judge Terrence Boyle signs off on the 23-page document, seasonal restrictions will be implemented to see that ORVs don't trample bird habitat.
The settlement, in effect, does what the National Park Service hasn't done -- provide some guidelines for off-road driving along the seashore. Because the Park Service hadn't developed such guidelines, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society sued the agency last fall. This settlement, if accepted, will resolve that lawsuit.
The consent decree would expire upon the adoption by the Park Service of a final ORV management plan and regulation, a process currently being undertaken by the Park Service and involving various stakeholders, including the conservation groups.
The conservation groups brought the lawsuit to protect bird and turtle nesting on Cape Hatteras. They claim that in recent years bird species have declined on the cape. For instance, only six pairs of piping plover were seen last year, down from 15 pairs in 1989. Additionally, there has been a 49 percent decline in American oystercatchers, and an 84 percent drop in the numbers of terns and black skimmers found on Cape Hatteras.
While the proposed settlement continues to allow ORVs on Cape Hatteras beaches, it would restrict them from certain areas during the breeding season. Additionally, it says the buffer zones around nesting areas can't shrink if erosion eats away at areas open to ORVs.
The settlement requires that the Park Service, by March 15 every year, delineate nesting areas on Bodie Island Spit, Cape Point, South Beach, Hatteras Spit, North Ocracoke and Ocracoke South Point. Additionally, the agency must create vehicle buffers of more than 1,000 yards for piping plover chicks. And the Park Service must send out staff every morning during the nesting season to search for plover chicks and redefine the buffer zones.