August 27, 2013
Environmental groups want Cape Hatteras
included in loggerhead critical habitat
By CATHERINE KOZAK
As the residents
of the Core Banks and the Crystal Coast are up in arms about a proposed
federal rule that could put additional regulations on their beaches to
protect sea turtles, regulators are considering whether the area for
the threatened species should be expanded to Cape Hatteras.
in its 19-page comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the
proposed designation, the Southern Environmental Law Center, submitted
on behalf of itself and 13 environmental groups, requested that beaches
on Cape Hatteras National Seashore be designated critical habitat for
loggerhead sea turtles, mostly because its high numbers of males would
counter expected impacts from climate change.
Carolina has relatively low nesting density compared to more southern
beaches, it plays an important role in producing males for the
population,” an attorney for the Chapel Hill-based group wrote.
“Because of its position at the northern extent of the range, we
further note that its importance may be expected to increase in the
face of global warming.”
Listed as threatened under the
federal Endangered Species Act, sea turtles are already a highly
managed species in the national seashore, which also encompasses Pea
Island National Wildlife Refuge on the northern end of Hatteras Island.
Beach driving has been curtailed at night, when nesting turtles can get
confused by headlights, and nests are protected from human activities
and predatory animals.
The proposed critical habitat
designation, required under the ESA, determines areas that are
essential to the conservation of the species. The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service has the responsibility to create regulations for
protected species, but the National Park Service manages ESA programs
within the seashore.
Critical habitat for wintering piping
plover in the seashore was the subject of numerous lawsuits, starting
with action filed in 1996 by Defenders of Wildlife – one of the groups
represented in SELC’s turtle comments -- against the Wildlife Service,
forcing the agency to publish a rule. That was followed by lawsuits by
Dare and Hyde counties and a coalition of recreational beach access
groups against the Wildlife Service. A revised final rule was
implemented in 2008 with little fanfare.
environmental groups have taken legal action against the Wildlife
Service over sea turtle critical habitat designation.
in March, the proposed critical habitat rule for sea turtles does not
currently include any area north of Bogue Banks, but the SELC’s
comments must be considered as part of the review process. Officials
will accept comments on the proposal through Sept.16. Staff
recommendations will be issued this winter, and the final rule is
expected to be implemented by summer 2014.
Pete Benjamin, the
field supervisor at the Fish and Wildlife’s ecological field office in
Raleigh, said that all of the few thousand comments must be reviewed
after the comment period closes. If there are any additions to the
proposed designated area, he said, it is likely that more public
hearings would be held.
At public meetings held in Charleston,
S.C, Wilmington, N.C., and Morehead City, most of the speakers’
comments were opposed to the designation, according to a Fish and
Wildlife press release.
“All the comments get the same
weight,” Benjamin said. “We’re not going to give one group more
standing in the process just because they’ve sued us.”
heels of a prolonged legal battle with SELC over off-road vehicle
driving in the seashore, and an ongoing one with the environmental
group over the project to replace the Oregon Inlet bridge, Outer
Bankers are weary –and leery – of any additional environmental
“Quite honestly, they don’t have a very good
track record with the people,” Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare
County Board of Commissioners said of Fish and Wildlife. “It is
absolute overreach. It is using the emotion of protecting a turtle . .
. We don’t think the science warrants it.”
But it’s a
different situation on the state’s southern beaches, which are located
mostly in municipal areas that are not already federally managed as
they are in the seashore.
According to a presentation compiled
by Greg “Rudi” Rudolph for the Shore Protection Office in Carteret
County, the proposed critical habitat in North Carolina is located in
Brunswick, Carteret, New Hanover, Onslow, and Pender counties,
including all of Bogue Banks, totaling 96 miles. The entire 739-mile
proposed designation also includes beaches in Mississippi, Alabama,
Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
communities take care to not harm sea turtles, including participation
in active turtle monitoring networks, Rudolph said, the concern is the
part of the regulation that requires review whenever there is a federal
action taken in turtle habitat. That could include, according to
Rudolph, U.S Army Corps of Engineers projects like beach nourishment
and sandbag construction, rebuilding after a storm when the Federal
Emergency Management Agency is involved, processing of claims under the
National Flood Insurance Program, and any program that depends on
federal grants and appropriations.
The Wildlife Service,
Rudolph wrote, “clearly states they consider coastal development,
recreation, shore protection, and beach driving as a threat and
anything . . . will be scrutinized. New federal actions pertaining to
this could be forthcoming.”
Rudolph said that it’s unclear
what the impact of a rule, or associated lawsuits, could be on local
and state ordinances on building, lighting, recreation, and ORV.
“It could go a thousand different directions,” he said. “Most of them bad.”
Benjamin said that, unlike an ESA listing, critical habitat designation
is obligated to take into account the economic impact. Also, the only
time it comes into play is when a federal action is taken – conducted,
funded or permitted -- which would be limited outside of U.S. parks and
“Currently, beaches are non-federal properties
– they’re not regulated by the federal government,” he said. “Critical
habitat will not affect those activities. The things that could come
into play are things like beach nourishment. There would have to be a
little more review. That additional review is very minor.”
Most likely, he said, it would involve little more than some extra paperwork.
of the problem, Benjamin concedes, is that the rule itself is written
in a very bureaucratic, dry manner. It starts with all the ways the
turtles are threatened and all of the reasons, from lighting to fishing
to poaching. So even before readers get to the meat of the rule, he
said, they’re thinking that everything they like to do on the beach
will be regulated.
“By the time they get to page 70,” he said, “most of them have already written their congressman.”
proposed critical habitat rule for sea turtles that covers the water
off North Carolina is about to start the review process.
refrain that is repeated at public meetings and in press releases by
the Wildlife Service is that the critical habitat designation is simply
another layer of regulation -- it does not set up a refuge or affect
activities on private land unless federal funding or permitting is
involved. It then requires the federal agencies to consult with the
Service before taking any action – which has to be done already with
any species protected under the ESA.
Benjamin said that the
proposed designation did not include Cape Lookout or Cape Hatteras
because they do not meet the criteria of being high-density nesting
The sex of a loggerhead is determined by the
temperature, with cold producing more males. Many more females are born
in Florida, for instance, than North Carolina, which has many more
males. But it is also the northern end of the turtle’s range and has
far fewer turtles, and consequently, nests.
limits are important,” Benjamin said. “You can’t just protect the
middle. But where do you draw the line? We’ve got comments going both
Dennis Stewart, refuge biologist in Pea Island National
Wildlife Refuge, said that people’s fears about the designation are
unfounded, especially as they relate to Cape Hatteras.
said that the wintering piping plover critical habitat designation on
the north end of the refuge has had no effect whatsoever.
far as the federal land, it won’t change anything they do as far as sea
turtle protection,” he said. “It won’t change how we do business at
FOR MORE INFORMATION
read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal for critical habitat
for loggerhead sea turtles and for information about making public
comments, go to:https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/07/18/2013-17205/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-designation-of-critical-habitat-for-the-northwest
The last day for public comment is Sept. 16.
comments powered by