For the past two months I've been documenting a remarkable comeback of Western snowy plovers at the Oceano Dunes. All it took for these federally protected shorebirds to expand their nesting area was to stop the dune buggies, RVs, and cars from driving along the beach and in the dunes.
Now it's time for state officials to commit to protecting these vulnerable birds by keeping vehicles out until at least late September when the snowy plover nesting season ends.
Oceano Dunes beach is still open for recreation and use, but COVID-19 caused the closure of the State Vehicular Recreation Area to vehicles in late March.
Without the usual off-road mayhem at Oceano, plovers naturally expanded their breeding area. Outside of the fenced areas where State Parks seasonally prevents vehicle access to allow birds to safely nest, male plovers began scraping out nests in the sand, and females favored many with eggs.
As a longtime birder, local resident, and conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, I've been thrilled to see plovers expand their nesting area, with baby and adult plovers foraging along more of the beach and foredunes than usual.
State Parks confirmed that nearly half of the active snowy plover nests at Oceano this spring were outside of protected fenced areas. I documented 50 snowy plovers outside of protective fencing on June 30.
I was disturbed and disheartened by something else I saw on my visits. State Parks employees were wiping out plover nesting scrapes, installing flagging to deter nesting, and corralling the shorebirds away from areas where they hoped vehicles would soon return.
After we documented and exposed these clear violations of the Endangered Species Act, the California Coastal Commission followed up with a rare enforcement action, ordering State Parks to stop interfering with plover nesting in Oceano Dunes.
It was a small but important victory for a vulnerable species at a time when the Endangered Species Act has been under attack by the Trump administration, congressional Republicans, and their allies in industry.
But that victory could be quickly erased—along with newborn plover chicks not yet able to fly—if the legions of off-road vehicles are allowed to return to Oceano Dunes this summer.
Although snowy plover numbers along the West Coast are slowly increasing and overall habitat conditions have improved, the Central Coast plover population is declining.
Snowy plovers continue to be run over by vehicles at Oceano Dunes every year, and the last couple of breeding seasons have not been good for snowy plovers at Oceano.
And State Parks' future plans for Oceano Dunes do not bode well for endangered species.
The agency released a draft plan this spring that prioritizes off-road recreation over the protection of wildlife. It would remove protection for important plover breeding habitat and proposes opening 109 additional acres of the dunes to off-road vehicles.
It's been gratifying seeing native wildlife rebound at Oceano in the absence of vehicles driving along the beach and buggies tearing through the dunes. A good nesting and fledging year for snowy plovers might continue their recovery and be an inspiring conservation success story.
But I fear what's to come when State Parks welcomes vehicles back to Oceano. The current nesting success could lead to a shorebird slaughter.
The Coastal Commission last summer told State Parks that it is time to start transitioning Oceano Dunes away from motorized recreation. That's long overdue, and local residents as well as wildlife have gotten a taste the past two months of the joys of the beach without vehicles.
We're insisting that Oceano Dunes remain closed to vehicles through September so the plovers here remain protected. Δ
Jeff Miller is a San Luis Obispo County-based conservation advocate with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. Respond with a letter to the editor emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.