Tuesday, April 13, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 6

Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on April 6th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 22, Issue 6

Nature, not humans, rules the Western snowy plover population


More than 25 years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared the Western snowy plover a threatened species and afforded “protections” that included nature establishing a sustained plover population of 400 adult birds on three Vandenberg Air Force Base beaches. Apparently the science didn’t support this conclusion then and still doesn’t.

In doing this the U.S. FWS ignored populations of the birds along the beaches of Mexico and the interior of the U.S. and only tabulated counts for one specific subset of the total plover community. DNA studies have clearly established a commonality among the species in many areas of the U.S.

The first was offered in a master of science thesis, “Population differentiation among snowy plovers,” by Leah Gorman which was submitted after peer review by the U.S. FWS to fulfill her degree requirements at Oregon State University in 2000. She noted that “our study provides no evidence of genetic differentiation between coastal and inland populations (of the plover community).”

Then a study, “Conservation genetics of snowy plovers,” published in 2007 concluded: “Although U.S. Pacific and Gulf Coast breeding areas were not genetically distinct from other continental U.S. sites, demographic isolation, unique coastal habitats, and recent population declines suggest they warrant special concern.” 

And even though this study specifically said that “snowy plovers are migratory and globally distributed, found in portions of North and South America and in Europe, Asia, and Africa” only beaches in the Western U.S. were chosen for closure action.

Closing Surf Beach to human visitors for several months of the summer season has aggravated the local community for more than two decades. Meanwhile, beaches in tourist-rich Santa Barbara coastal areas could remain open to the public. Apparently the environmental community on the South Coast who funds actions like this still likes to go to the beach.

After several years of closures and millions of dollars spent by the Air Force to manage the recovery effort, a recent base commander, with the concurrence of the U.S. FWS, finally relaxed the closure orders so at least a portion of the beach is now open year round.

But after all this time and expenditure of vital defense funds, has the plover on Vandenberg beaches come close to the recovery goal?

A research paper in 2020, “Habitat restoration improves Western snowy plover nest survival,” noted that “naturally restored areas had a stronger effect (higher and less variable survival estimates) on nest survival than human-restored areas. Human and predator activity were not strong predictors of nest survival.” 

As those of us who live here and have visited Surf Beach know, it is mostly unimpaired by development; however, over the years, mechanical manipulation of the habitat using heavy machinery has occurred with no appreciable improvement of the Western snowy plover population.

How do we know for a fact that the plover population has had little improvement in the 25 years since the beach was first closed? Well, Vandenberg has expended considerable effort and defense funds to count the birds each season.

The result of these counts was explained during a presentation to the Lompoc City Council by the Vandenberg environmental staff on March 16. They have religiously counted the number of adult birds on three Vandenberg beaches since 1994 when the U.S. FWS Western snowy plover recovery plan was initiated.

The findings may surprise you. Keep in mind that the recovery goal is a sustained adult population of 400 adults for 10 years before the Western snowy plover can be delisted by the U.S. FWS. In 1994 there were 218 adults; 25 years later there were 265 adults. Only once, in 2004 did the count reach 420.

So why haven’t the birds multiplied as expected? I am no scientist, but I think we can apply some common sense here to try and understand what’s going on at the beaches of Vandenberg. If you are expecting some sinister, top secret plan to undermine recovery efforts, forget it—there isn’t one.

My first thought is that the birds didn’t get the memo about the need to create an increased population or that they should stay at Vandenberg instead of flying away.

The paper, “Habitat restoration improves Western snowy plover nest survival,” gives part of the secret away. It says, “Plovers prefer to court and nest in relatively flat, open, sparsely vegetated habitats, which probably enables early detection of predators.” Anyone who has visited any of the three beaches chosen for protection knows that there isn’t much flat terrain on any of them.

The birds also need something to eat; brine flies are their meal of choice. Nature has a way of limiting the population of any species based on the availability of forage for survival. After multiple generations of plover families have come and gone, it would seem that the great thinkers in the U.S. FWS could figure out that the habitat on Vandenberg, even after some significant modifications using heavy equipment, can’t support 400 adults for even two years in a row.

Lastly, since real scientists have clearly established that there is “no evidence of genetic differentiation between coastal and inland populations,” the U.S. FWS should reevaluate its characterization of the Western snowy plover as “threatened” and release local beaches for unrestricted use.

Because, you see, it is nature, not humans, that rules how critters in the wild multiply and survive.

Ron Fink writes to the Sun from Lompoc. Send your thoughts, comments, and opinionated letters to letters@santamariasun.com. 

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