Though it's been a mostly quiet winter on the coast of North Carolina, things might get a bit testy in the coming weeks as Cape Hatteras National Seashore releases its pre-nesting closure plans to protect piping plovers, a threatened species.
More than a little heat has been generated in and around the seashore since conservation groups sued the National Park Service over the seashore's lack of management guidelines for off-road vehicle traffic. Their concern? That threatened bird and sea turtle species were being endangered by the traffic.
The lawsuit was brought by the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society. It led to a consent decree last year that forced seashore officials to institute more regulations as to when and where ORVs -- many of which are used by surf anglers to reach their fishing spots -- could travel.
The current rules, imposed to protect shorebird and sea turtle nesting sites, seasonally and intermittently restrict beach driving access to popular fishing areas. Environmentalists defend the currently strict controls on beach driving, arguing that protecting wildlife resources should trump recreationists’ demands for convenient ORV access to the beach.
Beach-driving anglers have strongly protested the strict rules. They argue that the federal government has greatly exaggerated the threat posed to wildlife by ORVers, and that the current rules make it unreasonably difficult to get to traditionally popular fishing areas. Area businesses detest the restrictions too, citing reduced spending by ORV users.
Now, to add a little more spice to this matter, Interior Department officials were notified early in December that a lawsuit would be forthcoming over decisions to designate critical habitat for piping plover at Cape Hatteras. The notification was lodged on behalf of the North Carolina counties of Dare and Hyde, as well as the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, a non-profit that represents, among others, the interests of surf anglers and beach buggy enthusiasts.
In the notice, the groups claim U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials violated the Endangered Species Act, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act, in their decisions to declare critical winter habitat for the plovers on both the national seashore and nearby Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The agency's actions, says the notice, "have caused, presently are causing, and will foreseeably continue to cause, substantial harm and adverse impacts to CHAPA's members, the counties, and the thousands of people who rely on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for their livelihood and recreation."
Which brings us to the latest news: Cape Hatteras officials have issued their recommended pre-nesting closures for the year.
The pre-nesting closures have been identified and are based on current habitat conditions and consideration of PIPL breeding activity in recent years. As stated in the Interim Protected Species Management Strategy Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), the pre-nesting closures provide for continued recreational use and access consistent with required management of protected species. These closures will meet the requirements to provide protection from adverse impacts related to recreational uses as required by laws and policies, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the NPS Organic Act, and NPS Management Policies 2006. These recommendations are also intended to meet the requirements of the consent decree, which states that “In the years following the 2008 breeding season, NPS shall establish pre-nesting closure areas at Bodie Island Spit, Cape Point, South Beach, Hatteras Spit, North Ocracoke, and Ocracoke South Point that incorporate to the maximum extent possible the areas delineated in the 2008 pre-nesting closure maps.”
Now, those closure areas are scheduled to be established by March 15. But they won't be set in stone. "Due to the Park’s dynamic shoreline and the likely occurrence of shorebird breeding behavior in suitable habitat as the breeding season progresses, subsequent modifications and additional resource closures may result in temporarily reduced access to certain areas," say seashore officials.
You can find a rundown on the proposed closure areas in the attached document.