April 29, 2015

NPS releases proposed changes
to wildlife protection buffers

By IRENE NOLAN


The National Park Service today released  proposals for how it will comply with changes in wildlife protections on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that are required by legislation passed last December by the U.S. Congress.

Among other things, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore legislation, passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Bill, instructs the Secretary of the Interior to review and adjust wildlife protection buffers, keep them in place the shortest possible duration, designate vehicle and pedestrian corridors around resource closures, and confer with the state of North Carolina on certain buffers and protections.

The legislation is intended to provide more access to the seashore for pedestrians and ORVs during the nesting season for shorebirds and sea turtles.

The document released is an Environmental Assessment that is titled "Review and Adjustment of Wildlife Protection Buffers."  It analyzes the potential impact of two courses of action -- Alternative A, which is "no action" or continuing with current management and is the environmentally preferred alternative, and Alternative B, which modifies buffers and/or provides additional access corridors and is the park's preferred alternative.

The Park Service is proposing some reduction in buffers or other means of increased access, such as corridors, for all protected species on the seashore at some point in the nesting process.

Here are the highlights of the plan:

  • For American oystercatchers: There would be an ORV corridor at the waterline during nesting, but only when no alternate route is available, and the nest is at least 25 meters from the vehicle corridor. Buffers for nests and unfledged chicks would stay the same as they are now. The corridor would provide access around some, but not all, oystercatcher nests on the seashore.
  • For piping plovers: The buffer during nesting would be reduced from 75 meters to 50 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs. For unfledged chicks, the buffer would be reduced from 300 meters to 100 meters for pedestrians and from 1,000 meters to 500 meters for ORVs. Where the standard 500 meter buffer blocks ORV access, the buffer may be reduced to no less than 200 meters to allow an access corridor along the shoreline. This proposal has the potential to open up more access to areas that piping plovers nest at Cape Point and South Point on Ocracoke.
  • For Wilson’s plovers: The buffer during nesting would be reduced from 75 meters to 50 meters for pedestrians and ORVs. The pedestrian buffer for unfledged chicks would be reduced from 200 meters to 100 meters, the same as for piping plovers. The ORV buffer for unfledged chicks would increase from 200 meters to a standard 500 meters. However, where an ORV corridor does not exist, the buffer may be reduced to no less than 200 meters to allow an access corridor along the shoreline.
  • For least terns: The buffer for unfledged chicks would be reduced from 200 meters to 100 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs. The buffer for nests would stay the same.
  • For common terns, gull-billed terns, and black skimmers: The buffer for these species during nesting would be reduced from 200 meters to 180 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs. For unfledged chicks, the buffer would be reduced from 200 meters to 180 meters for both pedestrians and ORVs.
  • For sea turtles: The expansion buffer would be reduced to 30 meters (15 meters on either side), and, when light filtering fencing is installed, 5 meters minimum behind the nest. This buffer would be the same for vehicle-free areas, village areas, and ORV routes. Visitors would be able to walk behind the buffer or in front of a nest, walking as close as practicable to the surf line. For ORVs, visitors would use an existing corridor around a nest, if available. In the absence of an existing corridor, the shorter buffer behind the nest would allow ORVs to travel behind a nest where sufficient beach width exists. Where a turtle nest blocks access from one ORV area to another and no way around the nest exists, visitors could drive in front of the nest if NPS resources exist to monitor the nest and remove ruts.


For nests laid prior to June 1, the seashore would retain the option of not expanding the buffer until day 60, unless signs of hatching prior to day 60 were detected.  Currently, the nests are expanded at 50 to 55 days. For nests laid after Aug. 20, the seashore would retain the option of not expanding the buffer for nests that block access to ORV passage. Instead, these nests laid after Aug. 20 would be monitored daily for signs of hatching and managed appropriately to avoid impacts if signs of hatching are observed. Where signs of hatching are observed -- for instance, a depression -- buffers would be expanded as outlined for nests laid before Aug. 20.

The Park Service says that the proposed buffers and corridors are contingent on having the resources to do intensive or increased monitoring to protect species.  If resource management personnel observe adverse impacts to wildlife, the seashore could revert to the resource protection measures that are currently used.

According to the document, the Park Service would need $260,000 in additional funding to provide more intensive monitoring.  That amount includes $80,000 for four additional employees to monitor sea turtle nests, $120,000 for six additional employees to monitor bird nests and chicks, and $60,000 for three additional law enforcement personnel. The amounts include salaries and additional expenses, such as housing.

The wildlife protection changes included in the Environmental Assessment include some, but not all, of the modifications that were proposed to the Park Service by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Seashore officials have scheduled five public meetings next week at which they will explain the proposals and answer questions.  The Environmental Assessment document will be open for public comment until May 14.

Seashore Superintendent David Hallac has said that after public comments are reviewed, a final document will be issued.  That, he said, will be by the June 16 deadline mandated by the legislation.

He also has said that whether the reduced buffers and/or corridors can be implemented for this spring and summer nesting season will depend on funding  and hiring additional staff members.

The Park Service last week released a list of expedited construction projects that will provide increased access by ORVs.  That was also required by the legislation.

After June 16, Hallac says that seashore staff members will turn to the final part of the legislation. That portion requires the Park Service to conduct a public process to consider such changes as the earlier opening of beaches that are closed at night during the summer, extending seasonal ORV routes in the fall and spring, and modifying the size and location of vehicle-free areas.

The Secretary of the Interior must report back to Congress on how it has complied with all requirements by the end of the year.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Click here to read the entire document, Environmental Assessment/Review and Adjustment of Wildlife Protection Buffers.

Click here for a table of buffers for birds and turtles under the Park Service's proposed preferred alternative.

Click here for a table that compares current buffers and proposed buffers.

PUBLIC MEETINGS

Five public meetings are scheduled for the week of May 4 to provide the public with the opportunity to learn about the proposed actions.  They are scheduled for:

  • Monday, May 4. Ocracoke School, 1 Schoolhouse Road, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 5. Buxton at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, 48576 Highway 12, from 6 until 8 p.m.
  • Wednesday, May 6. Raleigh, North Carolina. N.C. State University Campus, McKimmon Conference and Training Center, 1101 Gorman Street, Raleigh, from 6 until 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 7. Hampton/ Norfolk, Virginia. Embassy Suites Hampton Roads, 1700 Coliseum Drive, Hampton, from 6 to 8 p.m.
  • Friday, May 8. Kitty Hawk. Hilton Garden Inn, 5353 N. Virginia Dare Trail, Kitty Hawk, from 6 until 8 p.m.



PUBLIC COMMENT

Comments on the Environmental Assessment must be delivered or postmarked no later than May 14, 2015. The Park Service says it prefers electronic comments, which can be made on the park's planning, environment, and public comment (PEPC) website, http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=358&projectID=56762&documentID=65752. Comments can also be mailed to:  Superintendent, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC  27954.  Comments will not be accepted by fax, e-mail, social media or in any other manner than those specified above.  Bulk comments in hard copy or electronic formats submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.

 
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