Cape Hatteras National Seashore Wildlife Protection

Least Tern Chick with Mother: Least Terns and other beach-nesting birds are rebounding in numbers due to limited beach driving.

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Protections reduced for beach-nesting birds, sea turtles at Cape Hatteras More »

By decreasing the required space between the tires of off-road vehicles and beach-nesting wildlife, as announced yesterday, the National Park Service threatens gains made by these animals that were thriving, along with tourism, at Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

The new off-road vehicle management plan was developed in response to federal legislation passed in late 2014 that required the National Park Service to review its current guidelines. The existing plan, parts of which have been in place since 2008, safeguarded beach-nesting wildlife and pedestrian beachgoers on national seashore beaches while still allowing beach driving within the park.    

The ORV management plan in place in recent years led to notable growth in beach-nesting wildlife populations, while maintaining 61 percent of the seashore’s miles of beaches as year-round or seasonal ORV routes. Some indicators of the plan’s success:

  • 2014 was a record-setting year for tourism spending in the Hatteras area, with more than $170 million spent
  • Sea turtle nesting numbers are up significantly from 82 in 2007, before the plan was implemented, to 254 in 2013
  • Piping plovers, a threatened species, are raising fledglings every year in Cape Hatteras after raising none in 2002 & 2004

Despite these positive indicators, in December 2014 Congress passed a law that included a last-minute amendment requiring the National Park Service to review and potentially modify wildlife protections, but only if the changes are supported by science and consistent with all applicable federal laws. Conservation groups will review today’s final plan for compliance with those limitations and to ensure that the NPS’s plan will not endanger wildlife or disrupt the present successful balance between pedestrian and motorized uses of the beach.

As Geoff Gisler, senior attorney in our Chapel Hill office noted, “stronger, science-based wildlife buffers used by the National Park Service in recent years saw record-setting wildlife breeding success. The departure from those protections unnecessarily threatens these recent successes.”

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Protecting Wildlife on Cape Hatteras

Both Hatteras tourism and the rare sea turtles that nest on the seashore’s beaches have had record breaking success under a long-awaited rule to manage beach driving at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, according to official records. Subsequent years shows a successful balance for tourism and wildlife. The off-road vehicle management rule is the final step by the National Park Service in a public process agreed to by all parties—including Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance and local counties—concerned about beach driving on the national seashore. It balances safe use of the seashore's beaches for beach-nesting wildlife, pedestrians and families with beach driving.

Wildlife Rebound
Rare sea turtles and shorebirds that nest on the seashore’s beaches have rebounded since the off-road vehicle management rule, continuing a trend since April 2008 when the National Park Service enacted temporary seasonal protections under an agreement among all parties during its multi-year rule-making process that included input from thousands of Americans. Before April 2008, piping plover numbers within Cape Hatteras National Seashore declined to an all time low of no chicks surviving to fledge in 2002 and 2004. Since April 2008, beach nesting wildlife showed signs of recovery under beach driving management, while local tourism and park visitation also increased.

Responsibility to Manage & Protect
As stewards of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the National Park Service is charged with regulating beach driving under an Executive Order issued by President Nixon in 1972. The recently finalized rule for beach driving at Hatteras designates the majority of the beaches open to off-road vehicles while restricting beach driving only when and where needed for the safety of sea turtles, shorebirds, and pedestrians. The final rule incorporates protections similar to those put in place in 2008 that balance wildlife conservation with enjoyment of playing, swimming, fishing, surfing, responsible beach driving and other activities within the national seashore.

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