WELLFLEET, Mass. — A new state plan would add more recreational opportunities in the midst of Cape Cod’s fragile piping plover broods, but would also place more emphasis on killing the birds’ predators.
Getting rid of identified predators, such as a specific coyote in a plover nesting area, is what biologists say is necessary to help raise the productivity of Massachusetts’ piping plover pairs, according to the draft state habitat conservation plan, known as HCP. At the same time, opening up more areas for recreation during plover nesting and fledging season is meant to ease public tension over beach closures, raise beach permit revenues and win more community support for plover and barrier beach conservation.
“We do recognize that more flexible management works in the long term for the birds,” said Kathy Parsons, Massachusetts Audubon Society’s coastal waterbird director. Mass Audubon protects about 40 percent of the plovers in the state, through contracts with towns and other agencies and on Mass Audubon’s own land. “It’s not as though there aren’t risks.”
CAPE COD HAS 60 percent of PAIRS
On Cape Cod, there were 65 beaches that had at least one plover pair, according to the 2013 statewide census tallied by the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Cape Cod’s beaches hosted about 60 percent of the state’s 666 nesting piping plover pairs.
Towns, nonprofit groups, state agencies and private landowners that have plover conservation responsibilities could apply to be included in the state’s HCP program. The state plan does not cover plover conservation efforts by federal agencies such as the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
There is a second version of the conservation plan that the town of Orleans pursued on its own and implemented in 2015 at Nauset Beach.
The state HCP would be for a 25-year permit, and the Orleans HCP is a three-year permit.
The Seashore also has recently issued an environmental assessment for its new shorebird management plan. That plan, separate from the state and Orleans programs, also proposes killing plover predators and easing some regulations for recreational uses among plover broods. Unlike the other two plans, though, the Seashore program does not allow escorted off-road vehicles through areas with unfledged piping plover chicks.
The draft version of the state HCP is currently under review by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, and a date for that review to be completed is not yet known, according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Terri Edwards.
The hope, though, is that the state HCP could be approved and implemented by next summer, said Jonathan Regosin, chief of conservation science with the state Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program.
The move to allow more recreational use in areas that have been blocked in recent years to protect plovers is a welcome one, Massachusetts Beach Buggy Association board member Scott Morris said. The association has about 1,200 members, and 75 to 100 of them took advantage of the conservation plan at Nauset Beach in Orleans, he said.
The association was active in planning and helping fund both the Orleans and the state plan, Morris said.
The state HCP was developed with 20 representative groups including the beach buggy association, Mass Audubon and the towns of Barnstable, Chatham, Dennis, Orleans, Sandwich and Yarmouth.
The piping plover, once overhunted for the millinery trade, became a protected species under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1986. Along the Atlantic Coast, it is designated as threatened, meaning the population would continue to decline if not protected.
PROTESTING BEACH CLOSURES
Plovers typically arrive at their breeding grounds in late March or early April, and all adult and young plovers have left by mid-September. In Orleans, for example, increasing beach closures because of piping plover protections led to protests by vehicle owners who couldn’t use their town-issued off-road beach permits. The 2013 beach closure at Nauset Beach was the longest on record, lasting 83 consecutive days, according to the Orleans HCP. Also, the town has steadily lost money with fewer people buying ORV permits, from an annual average of $415,000 in years 2003 through 2006 to $243,000 in years 2007 to 2013.
“Co-existence is possible,” Morris said. “Access, whether it is by foot or oversand vehicle, is something that we can introduce and make it work. We proved it this year. At Nauset Beach, it worked great.”
Today, piping plovers are threatened by mammal and bird predators, human recreation, land development, climate change and other hazards, according to state officials.
The idea in both the state and the Orleans conservation plans is that more recreational use will be allowed in the areas of unfledged plover chicks, but with limits to help minimize the possibility of harm. At the same time, there would be a more focused effort to get rid of specific predators that might frequent a certain nesting area.
The equation behind the state HCP is, roughly, that any possible harm that one brood is exposed to by increased public access must be offset by conserving at least 2.5 broods from predators and other threats. The number of broods exposed to greater harm each year would be based on population studies, according to the draft plan. Then towns, nonprofit groups or other agencies would apply for a subset of those broods.
To eliminate predators, the state HCP proposes using traps for mammals such as raccoons and skunks, and then killing them, according to the draft of the plan. Nighttime mammalian predators such as coyotes and foxes would be identified with spotlights or thermal imaging equipment and then shot with suppressed rifles or shotguns. Bird predators would be shot with firearms equipped with silencing devices, and crows may be poisoned. Feral cats identified as predators would be given to local animal shelters. The killing of predators could be handled at the beach location, or off-site if the agency wants to pay for it.
In the Orleans HCP, the town is allowed to expose two broods to increased risk on or after July 15.
While piping plovers are increasing in population on the Atlantic Coast, production of healthy chicks per plover pair has not reached an acceptable level, according to the HCP.
“The focus is on predator management,” Parsons of Massachusetts Audubon Society said. “The approach is not to create a predator-free zone,” she added.