The public relations machines at the Southern Environmental Law Center, the National Audubon Society, and Defenders of Wildlife are probably ramping up even as you read this to declare another victory over off-road vehicles at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The environmental groups sued the National Park Service in 2007 over its lack of protections for nesting birds and turtles, and that legal action ended in a consent decree in federal court that resulted in larger-than-ever closures of seashore beaches to the public.
The consent decree was to be in place until the Park Service instituted an ORV plan and special regulation, which it did Feb. 15.
The consent decree may or may not have ended then, but U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle doesn’t seem in any hurry to let go of the case.
There will be another status hearing in his court on Friday, July 27, about the judge’s continuing oversight of seashore management.
And no doubt Derb Carter or one of his colleagues will be on hand in the courtroom to talk about how successful bird and turtle nesting has been since the environmental groups took over seashore management.
It has happened at the end of every nesting season since the consent decree was put in place in 2008. It happens each time the Park Service issues its annual resource management reports. It happens every time the environmental groups appear in Boyle’s court, and it has even happened in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate as bills move forward that would overturn the Park Service’s final rule.
We are all happy to hear that sea turtle nesting reached a record number of nests at Cape Hatteras this summer – and that the piping plover chicks are doing well also.
But it is total nonsense, outrageous, and maybe just plain old dishonest to say this success has come because some environmentalists sued the Park Service and got the upper hand in seashore management.
It’s just not true, though you can expect to see the usual media releases and pleas for donations from Audubon and Defenders to save baby birds and turtles.
Park Service officials have been careful to say whenever they talk about increased nesting success that it is too early to tell if the new, more restrictive public access policies are having an effect.
Certainly, on these barrier islands, weather plays an important role in the nesting success of birds and turtles, and after a series of storms in the past decade, the nesting season weather has been much more hospitable to the wildlife.
Predation also plays a big part in nesting success, and the employment of a full-time trapper to kill such animals as foxes, minks, raccoons, possums, otters, feral cats and others that would dine on baby birds and turtles has surely contributed to nesting success.
And, finally, there are just the trends of good years and bad years for the island’s wildlife.
This has been a good year.
A record number of sea turtles have lumbered onto the seashore beaches, beginning earlier than ever.
Thus far, there are 180 nests in the seashore compared to the previous record of 153 in 2010 and 147 last year.
However, is this because of the consent decree and the final ORV rule, both of which have prohibited driving on the beach at night?
The truth is that we just don’t know.
Sea-turtle nesting records are being set all along the southeast coast, and it just takes a few minutes searching online to find article after article about record nesting in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Cape Lookout National Seashore, just to our south, is also having a record year with 173 nests so far compared to 157 in 2010 and 2011.
South Carolina has recorded 3,679 nests so far, compared to 3,150 for all of 2010 and 4,024 for 2011.
Georgia beaches and parts of Florida are also looking at record years for nesting.
At this point, most biologists have been hesitant to say why nesting started so early on the southeast coast and why the number of nests is so high.
Matthew Godfrey, sea turtle biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, wasn’t ready today to say what he thinks.
Sea turtles live a long time, he said, and “with these long-lived species, you need long-term data.
North Carolina, he said, has only been collecting data for 10 or 15 years.
“I wish I knew why,” he said, “because it would make things much easier for management.”
Some say that protections that have been put in place are working. Some say it was the warm weather through the winter and early spring. Others just won’t speculate.
But you can be sure of one thing – the consent decree and final ORV rule have not been the reason for this impressive turtle nesting season.
But SELC, Defenders, and Audubon will claim the victory anyway.
Piping plover nesting success has also been good this year, but is it due to the huge 1,000-meter closures on the beach for chicks?
Maybe. But, just as likely, probably not.
So far this season, 11 piping plover chicks have fledged, and there is one active nest and one active brood on the beach, according to seashore biologist Britta Muiznieks. The brood has one remaining chick, and the nest has two eggs.
The only chicks to have fledged in the seashore this year have been at Cape Point.
In 2010, 15 chicks fledged, and in 2011, the number was 10.
It is true that fewer chicks fledged a decade ago, but that was before the Park Service was monitoring chicks intensely during daylight hours.
Since the 2007 Interim Protected Species Management Plan – which actually was the policy the park was operating under in 2006 – there has been intensive monitoring by park biotechnicians.
Who can say for sure that there were not more fledged chicks than were reported a decade or two ago because no park employee was out during every daylight hour looking for them?
The number of breeding pairs in the seashore was 15 this year, the same as last year. And, again, more monitoring may mean more awareness of the birds.
American oystercatchers, on the other hand, have had a lackluster nesting season. Thus far, 12 chicks have fledged and there are still four active broods.
Last year, 28 chicks fledged, and in 2010, the number was 30. That is out of reach for 2012.
I’ll bet Defenders and Audubon won’t blame the consent decree for the fewer fledged oystercatchers this year.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
For more information on sea turtle nesting on the southeast coast, go to http://www.seaturtle.org/nestdb/.
For the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s weekly and annual resource management reports, click on the Archives at the bottom of the Front Page. You can check them out by year under Beach Access and Park Issues.