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The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice of intent to sue the California Department of Parks and Recreation for allowing motorized vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which has killed protected snowy plovers.
Western snowy plovers are one of the most threatened shorebirds in North America. The birds have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1993, but their population continues to decline. In 2016 six snowy plovers were found dead in vehicle tracks at Oceano Dunes.
“Letting dune buggies crush imperiled snowy plovers is indefensible and illegal. The sandy beaches and fragile dunes where these tiny birds feed and breed have to be protected,” said Ileene Anderson, a Center scientist. “Despite decades of data showing that plovers have been terrorized and killed by vehicles, Parks and Recreation has failed to protect them. These officials must be held accountable.”
This recreation area in southern San Luis Obispo County includes about 1,500 acres of sand dunes and 5.5 miles of beachfront that motorized vehicles can use. The Department’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division operates and manages the area, where street-legal vehicles can drive on the beach in the northern portion, and the southern portion is open to off-road vehicles and motorized campers.
Snowy plovers nest and breed in the area between March and September, with most individual birds returning year after year to the same nesting spots, generally in flat open areas such as beaches and sandspits. Many snowy plovers also remain after the end of breeding season and throughout the winter, where they are vulnerable to vehicular disturbance. The endangered California least tern also nests on these beaches and is also at risk from harassment and disturbance by vehicles.
In 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned the Parks and Recreation Department that it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act for harassing and killing plovers at Oceano Dunes without any authorization or permit and recommended measures to avoid future plover deaths, including increased monitoring and decreased vehicle numbers. The Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concerns with the state’s decades-long delay in developing a habitat conservation plan that would protect the plovers and other plants and animals.
In June the Air Pollution Control District cited the Department of Parks and Recreation for violating air-quality rules, including monitoring violations and increased dust and other particulate emissions resulting from off-road vehicle use at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
California Senate Bill 249 (Allen) would provide needed reform to off-road vehicle management at Oceano Dunes and other state vehicular recreation areas, including additional safeguards for natural and cultural resources.
“For a species as imperiled as the snowy plover, the death of any individual and ongoing harm or harassment must stop — that’s the goal of our action,” Anderson said. “The state can’t keep allowing this off-road recklessness to continue.”
The Department also permits special off-road vehicle events and races at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. As the result of a previous Center lawsuit regarding special events and impacts to plovers, additional monitoring has been in place for special events.
The notice to the Department of Parks and Recreation follows a similar notice in 2009, after which protective measures were increased at the beach and plover deaths declined. But with plover deaths again increasing, the Center warned that a lawsuit might be necessary to save these rare and vanishing birds.