While the potential exists for the National Park Service's preferred off-road vehicle plan for Cape Hatteras National Seashore to be detrimental to piping plovers, sea turtles, and seabeach amaranth, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials believe the plan will be at least minimally helpful to all three in the long-run.
In a lengthy "biological opinion" assessing preferred Alternative F in the seashore's Final Environmental Impact Statement on an ORV management plan, FWS officials conclude that management tools should provide sufficient protection of those three species to endure continued ORV driving on the 67-mile-long seashore.
But that conclusion comes near the end of the 157-page document, one that notes high up that "potential" exists for piping plovers, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, to be adversely affected during nesting, wintering, and migration seasons; for three species of sea turtles that come ashore to nest at Cape Hatteras, and their resulting offspring, to be adversely affected, and; for seabeach amaranth, a threatened beach plant with distinctive fleshy, reddish stems, to also be adversely affected by allowances for ORVs and pedestrians under the preferred alternative.
The bulk of the document is spent on biological backgrounds on the species, information that addresses their range, population numbers, habitats, population dynamics, existing threats such as predation and coastal development, even how climate change might impact them. It also examines how beach driving and pedestrians could affect the species, and examines baseline conditions for the species.
When it comes to human presence on the seashore, the FWS researchers noted that all of the concerned species are at a disadvantage. Vehicles can, and do, run over piping plovers and their fledglings as well as sea turtle hatchlings and buried nests in these settings, pets can scatter plover fledglings, and beach goers can harass sea turtles and their hatchlings, and crush plover nests as well as amaranth plants and scatter their seeds.
At the same time, the document notes, management actions seashore officials can take under Alternative F can be beneficial to all three species.
"These beneficial effects can be categorized as measures to limit the interaction of vehicles, pedestrians, and their pets with nesting, migrating, and wintering piping plovers and their nests, hatchling and juvenile piping plovers, germinating seabeach amaranth and nesting sea turtles and their nests, eggs, and hatchlings," reads one section of the report.
After analyzing all the potential impacts and the off-setting beneficial effects of Alternative F, the biological opinion concludes that:
* (i)t is reasonable to conclude that implementation of the proposed ORV management plan will allow the breeding population of piping plovers to continue to grow at CAHA, barring events such as major changes in habitat conditions due to storms. Under the proposed management plan breeding piping plovers will continue to be exposed to potential human disturbance that may cause the population to grow at a slower rate than would occur in the complete absence of disturbance, and may cause the breeding population size to stabilize at a level below that which the available habitat could support in the absence of disturbance. Because we do not have a means of estimating the population growth rate at a particular locale (without or without disturbance), or the actual carrying capacity of the habitat within CAHA, the magnitude of these effects is unknown.
* Despite the continued potential for some adverse effects, the USFWS expects implementation of Alternative F should afford a reasonable opportunity for successful nesting of sea turtles annually. The proposed management activities would contribute to achieving the desired future conditions for nesting sea turtles...
* The USFWS expects implementation of Alternative F to afford a reasonable opportunity for at least a minimal amount of successful germination annually at CAHA’s most significant sites (Bodie Island, Cape Point, Cape Hatteras spit and Ocracoke spit). This is expected to potentially produce a slight population increase of seabeach amaranth over the near term.