Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Actions and Attitudes: Page 5

     The basic problem that many people find in protecting endangered species is the question of land ownership and the inconvenience that they fear may result when animal or plant habitat is protected.  Congresswoman Chenoweth would find agreement among many people living along the Massachusetts coast, who are unwilling to share the beaches with a tiny endangered bird.  This bird has caused storms of controversy between its protectors and recreational beach users.  The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), a shorebird, nests on sandy beaches along Eastern coasts, the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.  It has been crowded out of the majority of its nesting sites by the hordes of people who come to swim, sunbathe and drive off-road vehicles.  Beaches have been altered or developed for various commercial purposes as well, including levee construction for flood control.  In 1985, the species numbered only a few thousand birds and was listed on the Endangered Species Act as Endangered in the Great Lakes, and as Threatened elsewhere in its range.  The numbers of this species along the Atlantic coast, from southern Canada to South Carolina, reached 1,377 birds in 1998, and throughout its range, only about 5,913 birds survive (BI 2000).  In Massachusetts, where most beaches are public, local authorities and even federal and state enforcement officers were reticent to enforce the law to protect the nesting plovers.  Even when parent birds managed to raise chicks, the chicks were often run over by vehicles when they fell into the deep ruts on the beach made by tire tracks, unable to climb up the six inches of vertical sand or flee an oncoming vehicle in time.  Plans in 1989 to fence a portion of the beach in Plymouth to protect the nesting birds met with such anger and public protests from beach-users that they were abandoned.  In 1991, only a single chick survived in the state, with few beaches strictly protected.  Unleashed dogs killed some of the chicks, but most were run over by cars and all-terrain vehicles. 
     On Nantucket island, a Massachusetts Audubon Society warden fenced in the nests of two Piping Plovers in 1994, causing such anger from off-road vehicle drivers that they called the police, who threatened to arrest the warden.  Neither the state, which protects the species, nor the Fish and Wildlife Service came to the rescue of the Piping Plovers by supporting the actions of the warden.  Vandals ripped down the protective fencing.  Endangered Least Terns (Sterna antillarum) nesting on the same beach produced 24 chicks that year.  In one day, 20 were run over.  This finally convinced the local selectmen to close that portion of the beach to off-road vehicles, which allowed all eight Piping Plover chicks to survive.  The citizens of Nantucket voted the following year to defeat a selectmen proposal to allow vehicle use on the beach, which would have exempted the area from state law protecting the plovers.  In 1995, three pairs of Piping Plovers nested successfully on Nantucket, and state restrictions began going into effect to protect their nests. 
     In Massachusetts, nests increased from 139 in 1986, to 445 in 1995 (Allen 1996a).  In a step backward, the state of Massachusetts eased restrictions on beach vehicles in 1996, giving what conservationists called "plover-squashing permits" (Allen 1996b).  The Massachusetts Audubon Society estimated that at least 33 plovers would be legally killed each year under the new regulations.  Another loss for Piping Plovers was the firing in September 1997 of the town of Plymouth's Beach Manager, who had spent more than a decade protecting these birds from off-road vehicles.  This was done to appease recreational dune buggy users.  The ban, which closed part of the beach until mid-August to allow the chicks to survive, was lifted.  A civil complaint was filed in US District court in April 1998 to force the town of Plymouth to enforce the Endangered Species Act and protect nesting plovers.  The following month, a judge ordered the town to prohibit off-road vehicles on the beach from May 19 through August 31, unless strict measures are enacted to protect the nesting birds.
     At least one conflict concerning this endangered bird in 1997 had a happy ending.  The Cape Cod town of Barnstable's Fourth of July fireworks were nearly canceled by the Fish and Wildlife Service for fear that they would disturb the nesting plovers.  A local businessman offered the use of several barges from which to detonate the fireworks.  The barges were towed far from shore, and the fireworks proceeded as scheduled.  Conrad Troy, owner of Tucker-Roy Marine Towing and Salvaging, Inc., who had been contacted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society for his help, said;  “If I was an endangered species, I would hope someone would come help me out.  We can keep the piping plovers happy and the kids who want to see the fireworks happy" (Anand 1997).
     These controversies are indications of a growing trend in which animals, especially endangered species, are no longer eliminated or killed in the United States without protest when they come into conflict with people.    Listing a species on the Endangered Species Act is a major step.  It is not an end in itself, however.  Listing scarcely helped the plovers in the Plymouth beaches, however, because the law was not enforced when opposed by drivers of off-road vehicles and beach users.  Only the combination of publicity, local support for the birds and demand for strict protection have resulted in protection of plover nests and habitat preservation.  A large contingent of volunteers now works on behalf of these tiny birds.  Such cases provide examples of what is needed to prevent extinctions.
     Conflicts over protection of endangered species are sure to increase in the future.  Only if the public support is stronger on behalf of wildlife than the influence of those who are indifferent or oppose endangered species protection, can endangered species survive.  Public support for the less attractive and charismatic species, such as insects, fish, bats and nondescript plants, will come only through effective conservation education.

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