Thursday, February 7, 2013

Consider the plight of the plover protectors

Consider the plight of the plover protectors - Uri Driscoll/for the Times-Standard

We simply don't know how many plovers we have here on the North Coast. I personally have counted approximately 50 snowy plovers on numerous occasions on Clam Beach alone this winter. About half appear unbanded. Those are not counted in the official tally. Some have said they are from inland populations but that is only a guess. They could easily be from unfound local sites as well.

Last year three college students were responsible for surveying over 7,000 acres of local habitat deemed critical to the snowy plover. Obviously, lack of resources and qualified personnel make such a task somewhat overwhelming.

Some researchers have brought up strong concerns over the handling of eggs and chicks and the stress this causes the parents. It would stand to reason that birds would find new places to nest after experiencing the harassment deemed necessary to check eggs and capture and band baby chicks.

Yet at the same time we need to be able to count populations to know if we meet a certain magic number determined in the late 1990s to take them off the threatened species list. That number is currently 150 for our area but is adjustable if it is determined the current number is unreachable. The most we have counted in the last twelve years is 82 breeding birds. The yearly average over the first six years of local monitoring was 66. The last six years average has only been 31.

The Humboldt State University professor currently tasked with gathering data on the snowy plover has refused to share significant information with the public and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Paying researchers that refuse to share information with those expected to protect our little shore bird seems a little contrary to the mission.

Previously, Mad River Biologists (MRB) was being paid to monitor the plover until it was faced with legal issues over embezzlement charges.

Once touted as the key to the plovers recovery, vast acres of beach grass have been removed from our coastal dunes. Unfortunately that seems to be having a negative effect on plover populations in many areas. We know from photos and statements made recently by FWS staff that plovers lay nests and rear young in the beach grass. But that is not what we read on signage nor what is written on grant applications soliciting funds for beach grass eradication. Signage should perhaps be updated to reflect this information. The myriad of other environmental complications due to massive dune vegetation removal also suggest that such efforts need to be revisited.

Then there are the ravens. Yes, they eat eggs and chicks. Ravens are smart. They recognize faces. They follow researchers to nests. That has been documented. That is not good. The community has made it clear we do not want our ravens killed over this.

Without massive monitoring efforts to investigate potential nesting sites it is unlikely that we are going to find all the plovers we have. Finding them on river bars is extremely difficult and remote beaches are hard to get to. They do not always nest in the same areas either. For instance the Eel River Wildlife Area was once a significant nest producing area but now only rarely turns out a nest.

There are solutions but they don't exist in the status quo.

Modifying monitoring techniques or not approaching nests at all would help reduce stress levels for these birds and quite likely reduce raven predation. Adjusting the magic number for delisting in our recovery unit to an amount we can actually count would make things more realistic. Leaving the vegetation that plovers nest and rear their young in would also make sense.

We also need to enlist the public, not just add restrictions. That necessary buy-in will only result from increasing transparency and inclusion. Fortunately, steps are being taken in that direction.

Uri Driscoll resides in Arcata.

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