Press Release | October 5, 2009

Rare Birds and Sea Turtles are Thriving in 2009 at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

As the 2009 nesting season ends at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, National Park Service reports indicate rare birds and sea turtles benefited in the second breeding season after an April 2008 consent agreement increased park protections for baby birds and sea turtles endangered by off-road vehicles. The park has also attracted more visitors to date in 2009 despite the nationwide recession. The agreement—known as a “consent decree” because it was agreed to by all interested parties including park management, environmental organizations, off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiast groups, and Dare and Hyde Counties–governs off-road vehicle driving on beaches within the national seashore.
“After witnessing a decade-long decline in the number of nesting colonial waterbirds at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, we are encouraged to see an increase in the numbers of nesting birds and sea turtles at the Seashore,” said Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina. “The consent decree provides a desperately needed management structure that balances the needs of all the Seashore’s visitors, both human and wild.”
According to National Park Service resource reports, the number of nests laid on Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and Ocracoke Island by colonial waterbirds—a group of species that nest together in groups—more than doubled in 2009 compared to 2007, which was the last breeding season before the consent decree went into effect. Nesting success for several particularly sensitive species show an encouraging increase since the consent decree was implemented:

  • Black skimmers nested on the park’s beaches for the first time in three years, with 40 nesting pairs.
  • The number of least tern nests more than doubled with a minimum of 464 nests laid, according to preliminary 2009 data, compared to 194 nests in 2007.
  • The number of common tern nests almost doubled with a minimum of 31 nests laid, according to preliminary 2009 data, compared to 18 nests in 2007.
  • The number of oystercatcher chicks were raised to adulthood (fledged) increased from ten in 2007 under the old management plan to 13 in 2009.
  • Piping plover numbers also increased: four chicks fledged in 2007 before the consent decree took effect and six chicks fledged in 2009. With 11 nesting pairs in 2008 and nine in 2009, these are the highest numbers at the Seashore for this federally listed threatened species since 1998. In 2007, six pairs nested at the Seashore.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Jason Rylander, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “The breeding successes we’ve witnessed over the past two seasons are the direct result of the heightened protections put in place by the consent decree; a move that has benefitted the entire Cape Hatteras National Seashore ecosystem for both native wildlife and people.”
The National Park Service resource reports also show that the two seasons under the consent decree produced the two highest sea turtle nest counts ever officially recorded at the Seashore: a record 112 nests in 2008 and 103 nests in 2009, compared to 82 nests in the pre-consent decree 2007 season. Among the nests observed in the park this year was a rare leatherback sea turtle nest, one of only three in all of North Carolina this year.
“The national park’s seen another successful year for wildlife and visitors with improved protections for baby birds and sea turtles endangered by off-road vehicles,” said Derb Carter, director, Carolinas Office, Southern Environmental Law Center. “Such good news from Cape Hatteras reminds us why the national park system’s mission to protect a few special places where nature predominates is so vital.”
At the same time, more than two million people visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore each year and visitation to the park increased in 2009 during May through August when consent decree protections for birds and sea turtles were in effect as compared to 2007 before the consent decree. Besides the uptick in park visitation, recently released data demonstrated growth in tourism revenue despite the nationwide economic downturn. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau reported in an August 11 news release that “…domestic visitors to and within Dare County spent an estimated $777.41 million dollars in 2008, an increase of 1.9 percent from 2007.”
The consent decree was designed to balance the needs of diverse park visitors, including beach drivers, families, anglers, surfers, birders, and wildlife. Statistics show it is doing so. Even at the peak of the breeding season in 2009, according to National Park Service data, only 13.7 miles of the seashore’s 67.5 miles of beach were temporarily off limits to ORVs for wildlife protections.
Some 2009 beach closures were caused by deliberate acts of vandalism of the fencing and signs installed to protect wildlife. The park service documented incidents of vandalism during the 2009 nesting season, ranging from the methodical destruction of 17 signs marking shorebird protection areas in a single incident to tire tracks traveling through the fence enclosing a turtle nest, into the no-driving area and past the nest. The consent decree requires expansion of wildlife protections when it determines that such acts are deliberate. 
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Note to editors:

  • High-resolution photos and video footage are available for media use with appropriate photo credit. Contact Ida Phillips, Audubon NC, at 919.929.3899 or iphillips@audubon.org.
  • National Park Service statistics for Cape Hatteras National Seashore are available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/stats/ 
  • Video b-roll of sea turtles and piping plover are available at http://www.fws.gov/video/broll.htm
  • The latest U.S. National Park annual reports for piping plover and sea turtles are available at: http://www.nps.gov/caha/naturescience/2008-piping-plover-annual-report.htm and http://www.nps.gov/caha/naturescience/2008-sea-turtles-annual-report.htm
  • A National Park Service interactive map of current beach closures at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is available at http://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/googleearthmap.htm
  • National Park Service beach access reports, vandalism incident reports, and other news releases are available at: http://www.nps.gov/caha/parknews/newsreleases.htm. • Additional background: The National Park Service has been out of compliance with federal environmental laws, park management rules, and presidential executive orders regarding ORV use at the seashore for more than 30 years. In 2007, Audubon North Carolina, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Southern Environmental Law Center sued to compel the federal government to prepare an ORV management plan that complies with the law and protects threatened and endangered species. The consent decree–negotiated and agreed to by conservation groups, Dare and Hyde counties, ORV user groups, and the park service–increased protections for wildlife on a temporary basis until the park service approves a final ORV plan. The park service recently concluded a two-year long negotiated rulemaking process to use input from various stakeholders in crafting a final ORV strategy. If the process is uninterrupted, the park service is scheduled to release its preferred plan in fall 2009–to be finalized, after public comment, by April 2011.

About Defenders of Wildlife Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members, supporters and subscribers, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. www.defenders.org
About National Audubon Society The National Audubon Society has more than one million members and supporters, offices in 23 states, and a presence in all 50 states through more than 450 certified chapters, nature centers, sanctuaries, and education and science programs. Locally, Audubon maintains a North Carolina state office which works on behalf of Audubon’s more than 10,000 members and supporters in the state. Audubon’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity. It carries out that mission nationally through a variety of activities including education, habitat conservation and public policy advocacy. www.ncaudubon.org
About the Southern Environmental Law Center The Southern Environmental Law Center is the only regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.
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