Press Release | May 23, 2008

Bird populations on the rise at Hatteras under new plan

The number of birds nesting on Cape Hatteras National Seashore is already showing preliminary signs of recovery, less than a month after additional sections of the beach were closed under a new management plan that provides additional protection.  According to the National Park Service, the number of piping plovers on the beach increased from six pairs in 2007 to at least eight pairs, the highest number of piping plovers on the Seashore since 1998. American oystercatchers on the beach have increased from 22 pairs in 2007 to 31 pairs so far this season.

“When birds are given the chance to set up nesting areas without disturbance, our experience has shown that their numbers will increase,” said Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina.  “We are delighted to see these early signs that nesting success could be on the rise this year.”

Portions of the beach around bird nesting areas were closed pursuant to a consent decree agreed upon by environmentalists, the Park Service, Dare and Hyde Counties, and the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance, a group representing ORV users. That agreement approved last month by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle, resolved the pending lawsuit that charged an interim National Park Service plan to protect wildlife from the impacts of beach driving along the Seashore was inadequate.

According to a National Park Service report issued yesterday, fewer than 11 miles of the 66 mile long Seashore are temporarily closed because of protective measures for nesting birds. Additional areas are closed to vehicles because they are not safe to drive on, or are on areas such as lifeguard beaches or in front of the villages.  Even with these closures, 24 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore remain open to vehicles.  Cape Hatteras was recently included in Dr. Beach’s List of America’s Top Ten Beaches and was named by USA Today as one of “Ten Great National Parks that will engage your kids. ”

The temporary closures under the settlement are based on observed nesting and feeding behaviors, allowing for specificity in determining what areas need to be closed, as the areas that are used for breeding are protected. When the nesting season is finished, the protected closures for breeding birds can be reopened. While this approach requires more intensive monitoring efforts by the National Park Service, it also provides the most flexibility, as closures are limited in location and time.

“While these numbers are certainly preliminary, it does give us a good indication that the closures on portions of Hatteras are working to rebuild these populations,” said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. SELC represented Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society in the lawsuit that resulted in the settlement.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to nesting shorebirds, such as the threatened piping plover, the common tern, and the American oystercatcher. The number of colonial waterbirds nesting on Seashore beaches declined from a high of 1,311 nests in 1997 to 212 nests in 2007 – an 84 percent decline in 10 years. Last year, two of the imperiled shorebird species, gull-billed terns and black skimmers, failed to nest on the Seashore. Since 1995, common terns have been all but eliminated at the Seashore while American oystercatchers have seen their numbers decline by almost one half since 1999. 

“The temporary closures of portions of Cape Hatteras are doing exactly what they were designed to do: give struggling bird populations a chance to bounce back at the seashore,” said Jason Rylander, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “By balancing the needs of beach residents and visitors with those of wildlife during these crucial nesting periods, the consent decree is ensuring that Cape Hatteras has room for everyone.”

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.