A loggerhead sea turtle coming ashore to lay its eggs was crushed by a vehicle at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, an incident likely to ratchet up the contentious debate over how much access off-road vehicles should have at the seashore.
The incident comes as seashore officials are pulling together a final Environmental Impact Statement on a proposed management plan for ORVs driving on the seashore's beaches. Seashore officials discovered the dead turtle Thursday morning about 50 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.
"We don’t know if it happened late the night of the 23rd or early morning of the 24th," Thayer Broili, the seashore's resource management chief, said Friday morning. "It happened on Ocracoke Island, towards the southern end of the Ocracoke Island, between two of the ramps, 70 and 72. We’ve reported it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our rangers are doing an investigation."
Loggerhead turtles are a threatened species throughout their range under the Endangered Species Act. Adults can have a shell ranging up to 3 feet in length, and can top out at 250 pounds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Females don't reach sexual maturity until they're 35 years old, according to the agency.
Photos of the dead turtle clearly show that the vehicle rode right over it and then apparently became high-centered, as the driver backed up in an effort to free his rig, according to Chief Broili.
"In all likelihood it was an off-road vehicle to even be there," the chief said. "And they drug it about 12 feet. It appears that they stopped. They realized that they run over something and got out and looked and ran back over it. The turtle was a pregnant female that came ashore to lay its eggs and apparently it was migrating up or down the beach. We did recover some eggs the next morning, which we have transplanted to a nest, we don’t know if they’ll survive or not.”
While three species of sea turtles -- threatened green sea turtles, endangered leatherback sea turtles, and threatened loggerhead turtles -- come ashore to nest at Cape Hatteras, to date it has been a tiny bird -- the piping plover -- that seemingly casts the greatest shadow over the seashore’s management. These grayish-white birds with a black neck band, yellow legs, and a distinctive chirp are somewhat curious in their preference for nesting habitat, as they make small bowl-like depressions in the sand to lay eggs that blend in so well they can easily be overlooked and, unfortunately, easily crushed by feet and tires and available to predators.
Unfortunately, for Cape Hatteras beach-goers, these birds nest from late spring through July, and restrictions imposed to protect the birds block some stretches of seashore from those who prefer to drive their vehicles on the beach.
Now, though, the attention has been shifted dramatically to the plight of sea turtles that come ashore to nest. The seashore's sea turtle population has been doing relatively well in recent years. Last year the 104 verified nests were far above the 43 counted just five years ago. Those 2009 nests also produced roughly 5,000 turtle hatchlings, according to the seashore's annual sea turtle report.
Despite the relative boom in turtle nesting in 2009, there was no direct connection last year between ORVs and a sea turtle's death on Cape Hatteras, although there were some minor infractions, according to the seashore's annual report.
ORV violations of turtle closures were relatively rare. There were several accounts of vehicles driving below (i.e. ocean-side of) the expanded turtle closures in the morning before any washed out signs in the intertidal zone could be replaced. It is unknown how many hatchlings, if any, were affected by these actions, either by being run over or by being stuck in tire tracks. There were no observed losses to this type of violation, although it is known that hatchlings were emerging from NO30 (a green nest) during the same night that some of these violations took place (see above)
That said, there were at least two notable exceptions to that observation:
NBH10: On the morning of July 26th, staff on turtle patrol for the Bodie Hatteras District noticed that a nest closure was “missing” in the tri-village area. After going back through the area, she found that someone had removed the four signs, string, flagging, and PVC poles that were surrounding the nest site. Two of the signs were later found 0.2 miles down the beach. One sign was found behind the primary dune line with the PVC poles and the fourth sign was never recovered. Many sets of pedestrian footprints were found over the nest site. The eggs were checked and the closure re-installed at the expanded size. As the nest had a good success, it is unlikely that this incident resulted in any harm to the nest itself.
NH33: On the morning of September 2, staff on the turtle patrol for the Hatteras South run noticed that string was down at the NH33 nest site, which was an expanded closure just north of Ramp 49. It was found that a vehicle had driven though the sting at one end of the closure, run through the filter fencing, and then exited the closure by driving through the string at the other end. It is unknown whether the vehicle was also in violation of the CD nighttime driving restriction. The filter fencing was repaired and the closure expanded. There was no observed damage to the actual nest.
Chief Broili said this week's incident is the first anyone can recall in which a vehicle killed a sea turtle. The seashore's chief ranger on Ocracoke Island has been with the Park Service for 33 years, and grew up on the island, "and he said this is the first time that he’s aware of this ever happening," said the chief.
The section of beach where the turtle was killed is closed to vehicles overnight beginning at 10 p.m. under the seashore's temporary ORV regulations.
"We have night-driving regulations and everybody is supposed to be off the beach by 10 o’clock," said Chief Broili. "We think this happened after that, but we have no way to prove it.”
The incident comes just as turtle nesting on the national seashore is ramping up, according to the chief. So far 37 or 38 nests have been counted, he said.
"Overall, the past couple years have been very good for our turtles. We still don’t know what the overall season will be," said Chief Broili, "but this one poor individual got caught in a bad situation.”
Park Service rangers are being aided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents in investigating the matter.
“Who knows what this guy was doing," said Chief Broili. "It would seem that anybody who was driving down the beach at night with their lights on would see it. Who knows? This person could have been under the influence, young kids, relatively young people who were just ripping around not paying attention to what they were doing. Who knows? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that they did this intentionally.
"Who knows what the motives of people are?" he added. "They definitely knew that something had happened."