July 31, 2012
Guest Column: Why Park Service policies are bad for wildlife protection


Early results indicate a record breaking year in Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreational Area for sea turtle nesting as global warming shifts the turtle population northward from Florida. Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, as expected, took credit for the increased nesting in Cape Hatteras and shared the accolades with the friendly U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle. 

But will he also take credit for helping to push the turtles into extinction, which is the consequence of this increased nesting?

Because of human interest in the decreased turtle population and the Endangered Species Act, the nesting of sea turtles is monitored all along the U.S. coast. All beaches are patrolled for turtle activities. When nests are detected, the degree of protection afforded a nest varies widely in different coastal areas. 

The most common protection is by relocation of the nest to a safer location to prevent damage by weather, humans or predators. The greatest protection is practiced in Texas, where each nest is either relocated to a laboratory hatchery or a screened corral on the beach. All hatchlings are counted and escorted safely to the sea to begin their life journey until they reach maturity after 20 to 30 years and return to some shoreline to repeat the cycle. In other states, the nests may be relocated into corrals or selected safe areas with the practice of human nest sitters to ensure that hatchlings reach the water without predation or mishap.

In nearby Virginia at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the nests are relocated into individual cages and clustered behind the primary dunes with close monitoring until release into the ocean. In Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (within CHNSRA), the nests are relocated to safer high beaches with nest sitters who deploy birth canals of garden fencing to manage the usual gauntlet of ghost crabs that would prey upon the hatchlings.

Only CHNSRA practices a natural nesting policy advocated by Dr. Matthew Godfrey of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Nests are left in place where they are laid and moved only if in imminent danger of washout or deep-sand burial. Under this policy about 15 to 20 percent of the nests are relocated each year. This relocation is not to a selected safe area. The nests are merely moved closer to the nearest dune. 

The SELC encourages this policy since relocation to the dune base will close that beach to vehicular traffic in line with the Defenders of Wildlife agenda to remove all public vehicles from federal lands.

In CHNSRA, only a few nests convenient to the villages are provided with nest sitters. The majority are left to the natural predation of ghost crabs. These predators have flourished by the National Park Service restrictions on vehicle operations. The result is that the NPS has no idea how many hatchlings escape to the ocean. Instead, park officials remain ignorant of their status in aiding or hindering the sea turtle recovery effort under the ESA.

The CHNSRA turtle policy has produced the worst record along the coast. Within the sea turtle protection community, any loss of nests greater than 20 percent is considered catastrophic. CHNSRA routinely loses 20 to 40 percent of the nests every year. 

Turtle survival as a species would be better served if the NPS erected fencing along the entire shoreline to force the turtles to nest elsewhere, where they would receive proper care. With better management, the turtles could survive the “Killing Fields” of the Hatteras dynamic beaches, but the Park Service steadfastly refuses to change its tactic of closing the beaches to human use as the choice for “protection” for birds and turtles.

Here is the seashore’s proud record of turtle nest loss since the 2008 consent decree:

     2008                112                         28                          25%      
     2009                104                         37                          36%
     2010                154                         42                           27%
     2011                147                         51                           35% 

Note: Nests lost includes nests in which no eggs hatched and those noted as “lost nest,” which are washed away so that eggs could not be counted.

Every year produced a catastrophic loss of nests. These results are similar to the experience prior to the consent decree. The Park Service has killed thousands of mammals as potential predators, closed the beaches at night, and severely restricted travel and access in the day time -- all to no avail. 

This attempt to promote turtle recovery is miserable because the NPS management is wrong. The greater the number of turtles that nest under the NPS control in CHNSRA, the greater will be the nest losses and the greater will be the decrease in species survival.

Shorebirds do not fare much better under NPS management. 

In early spring, the birds are lured into large pre-nesting areas which have historic poor fledging success. The purpose of the ESA is to prevent extinction and increase the wildlife species population. Increased nesting is only beneficial if it leads to increased fledging to improve the population. Humans are denied the use of the inlet shorelines to provide bird nesting. 

In all these years, there has never been one successful plover fledge at the inlets, with the exception of 2011 when two chicks fledged on Bodie Island. The fledge rate (fledges per pair) for the past 10 years has averaged 0.75, which is only half the 1.5 target for recovery of the plover species. 

The encouragement of bird nesting at these inlets has been a serious waste of bird energies when the birds should be sent elsewhere for some degree of success. 

Piping plover fledging has always been best at the Cape Point dredge pond, which has contributed to 80 percent of the plover fledging in CHNSRA. This man-made feature with ephemeral ponds and good feeding habitat has produced the best source of food to aid in fledging for plovers. The NPS mismanagement has reduced the good habitat by encouraging vegetative growth.  As with the turtle resource, the NPS refuses to change its management policies so as to help the piping plovers.

The public has been misled by the SELC and the Park Service into believing that beach closure is necessary to protect wildlife. In some instances, the public has been actually lied to in that regard. Closure has been non-viable for propagation. 

Continued movement by the NPS in that direction justifies the suspicion that the NPS is not dedicated to wildlife protection but merely wants to placate environmental lawyers and ally themselves with such groups to deny public use of this National Seashore. 

Apparently the NPS has concluded that the public protest to closure would be ineffectual whereas the SELC lawyers were a clear and immediate danger to be mollified.

This could be the ultimate bureaucratic cost cutting for austere times: Restrict the public to the village fronts and run the rest of the CHNSRA as a wildlife sanctuary. During the failed negotiated rulemaking effort, the representatives from Audubon wanted the inlets and the Buxton-Frisco South Beach for birds and free of human recreation. They got much of their wish, even though these areas have proven to be unproductive for birdlife.

(Bob Davis lives in Buxton and is an advocate for wildlife and for more reasonable public access to the seashore. He participated in the failed attempt at negotiated rulemaking.)

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