| April 11, 2008
NC State study links beach driving to oystercatcher mortality
(Editor’s Note: This is a media release from Southern Environmental Law Center)
recent study done by members of the zoology department of North
Carolina State University shows a direct correlation between beach
driving and mortality rates of American oystercatchers, a species of
bird that nests on the shores of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and
one of the species a recent lawsuit filed concerning beach driving on
Hatteras aims to protect.
“American oystercatcher research and monitoring in North
Carolina” by Theodore Simons and Shiloh Schulte, part of
the USGS, NC Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in the
zoology department of NCSU, examines the nesting and foraging habits of
fledgling American oystercatchers along the Cape Lookout and Cape
Hatteras national seashores.
According to the study, which was commissioned by the National Park Service:
• Vehicle collisions and disturbance are
responsible for nearly 1 in 5 (16 percent) of known chick mortalities
of American oystercatchers along the two Seashores although the authors
suspect the number to be higher as often times the bodies of chicks are
not found. Many of those opposed to a management plan to regulate
driving on Cape Hatteras claim that birds are lost to predators,
climate change and other factors as opposed to vehicular traffic.
• In areas of Cape Hatteras that are closed to
vehicular traffic, 47 percent of Oystercatcher chicks survived, while
only 27 percent survived in areas where an open lane for vehicles and
• Between 1995 and 2007, nine chicks that were
killed by vehicles were found on Cape Hatteras. The authors report that
this is “only a fraction of the total number of chicks killed by
vehicles during this time, as dead chicks were located by chance in
most cases and many chicks died and were never found.”
The American oystercatcher has declined by 49 percent on Cape Hatteras
National Seashore since 1999, according to the North Carolina Wildlife
“The NC State study of the American oystercatcher proves what
we’ve long known to be fact: that birds along Cape Hatteras
National Seashore have been killed by vehicles on the beach,”
said Walker Golder, deputy director of Audubon North Carolina, which,
with Defenders of Wildlife, is being represented by the nonprofit
Southern Environmental Law Center in the beach driving lawsuit.
“The only question that remains is how do we protect the
oystercatcher, as well as the other birds and turtles on the beach,
while preserving the ability for fishermen and others to access the
SELC is in negotiations with the Park Service over a settlement
agreement that would regulate beach driving while protecting the
natural resources of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
“There’s no question that beach driving, when not managed
properly, impacts the survival of nesting shorebirds and sea
turtles. That’s why it’s so important that nests and
chicks be protected during this critical breeding season,” said
Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.
Simons and Schulte observed that oystercatchers spend their time
walking between the dunes, where they spend the day, and the waterline,
where they forage for food with their chicks, putting the birds at
“considerable risk” from vehicle traffic.
After two chicks were killed by a vehicle in 2005, Cape Lookout
National Seashore closed sections of the beach to vehicular traffic and
saw no additional deaths from vehicle traffic. Similarly, in 2005, Cape
Hatteras closed sections of the beach with oystercatcher broods and saw
no chick deaths by vehicle. However, when the policy was changed in
2006 to allow vehicle lanes past broods, two chicks were recorded dead
due to vehicle traffic.
In addition to being run over by vehicles, Simon and Schulte observed
chicks hiding in vehicle tracks in response to adult alarms calls and
incidents of adult and young American Oystercatchers running and flying
directly at headlights of oncoming vehicles at night.
Furthermore, Simon and Schulte report incidents in which adults were
disoriented by vehicle headlights, leaving their young to die of
exposure, dehydration, and predator attacks that likely would not have
The National Park Service, which is charged with developing and
implementing a plan to manage beach driving to protect and preserve the
region’s natural resources, is currently undertaking a
process to develop future rules for driving at Hatteras. However, NPS
admits the process will take at least three years to complete.
Scientists agree that several species could be eliminated from the
seashore in that time.
To read the entire NC State report, go to http://www.southernenvironment.org/cases/hatteras/index.htm
Click on “In depth” on right side of page and then on NC State Report on American Oystercatcher.