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Why you really need to stop driving on beaches

American oystercatcher at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

For off-roading enthusiasts, a relaxing drive on the beach in warm weather may seem like an innocent enough activity. For the nesting shorebirds who make their home along the coastline this time of year, it’s another story.

Whether vehicles are allowed on beaches varies from one state — and, in some cases, from one city — to the next. But in places where the practice is allowed, driving along the beach may be causing all kinds of problems for coastal birds, such as piping plovers and oystercatchers, especially in the spring and summer months when they’re nesting and raising chicks, according to environmentalists. The most obvious of these is the risk of crushing delicate eggs.

According to Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, many shorebirds do a great job of camouflaging their nests, scraping shallow indentations in the beach and laying their sandy-colored eggs inside. “You can be five feet away from a nest, see it, take your eyes off of it, and then you can’t find it again,” Comins says.

But once the chicks hatch, they don’t stand a much better chance against vehicles on the beach.

New chicks can easily fall into the ruts made by tire tracks along the shoreline and get stuck, says Lindsay Addison, a coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina. At the very least, they risk becoming separated from their parents this way — worst case scenario, another vehicle may come along and run them over while they’re trapped.

Vehicles pose some less direct threats as well. Off-roading vehicles can be frightening and disruptive to adult birds, who may be inclined to fly away any time a vehicle comes down the beach. “If you’re repeatedly flushing birds away from young chicks, you have a lot of different things happening,” Addison says. “Chicks and eggs are exposed to temperature stress if parents aren’t able to be with them. They’re exposed to predators — crows, gulls, raccoons, foxes, coyotes. And also, if adults are stressed out really badly at a colony by too much chronic disruption, they may choose to abandon the site.”

Too much driving on the beach can contribute to habitat degradation as well, says Comins. “It tends to really greatly contribute to beach erosion and certainly to the detriment of dune vegetation, which is important for stabilizing these beaches,” he says.

In parts of the country where off-roading is allowed, Addison recommends local authorities at least establish a buffer zone around prime nesting areas to keep disturbances at a minimum. But these type of measures have become highly contentious in some places.

At North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore, for instance, debates over off-roading on the beach have been a source of bad blood for years. In February 2012, the National Park Service restricted off-road vehicle access to the beach to certain times and places after environmentalists filed a lawsuit calling for better protections on local wildlife.

In response, a group of outraged community members created the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance and filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the new regulations. The group argued that the National Park Service overlooked any compromises that would have maintained vehicle access to the beach and protected wildlife at the same time. The new regulations are also potentially damaging to the tourist-oriented local economy, the group said. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.

But tensions are running high again this spring, after the National Park Service proposed scaling back some of the restrictions it put in place for both vehicles and pedestrians on the beach, such as reducing buffer zones between beach-goers and nesting sites.

Many of these looser restrictions are viewed as a step in the right direction by the Cape Hatteras Access Preservation Alliance. But the proposal has environmentalists worried that the National Park Service could “potentially roll back the gains that birds and sea turtles have made since the better management has been implemented,” says Addison, from Audubon North Carolina. According to Addison, these gains have included an increase in the number of sea turtle and shorebird nests on the beach, as well as greater success for shorebirds in raising their young.

The numbers appear to back her up, at least in part: In 2012, the year the beach management practices were implemented, biologists counted 17 waterbird colonies, and in 2013 they counted 19 — up from 12 colonies in 2011 and 10 in 2010. And the gains extend to other wildlife as well, such as sea turtles, which also lay their delicate eggs in the sand. In 2010 and 2011, biologists counted only 153 and 147 nests respectively, while these numbers rose to 222 nests in 2012 and 254 in 2013. (The number of colonial waterbirds and sea turtles both took a dive in 2014, the most recent year that data is available. Environmentalists say they still don’t know what is behind the drop, but extreme weather events, predators and human disturbances, including foot traffic, may all have played a role.)

Biologists pay attention to these numbers because so many shorebirds species are experiencing declines or have low populations as it is. One prime example, according to Comins, is the piping plover, a favorite among shorebird enthusiasts. Populations throughout the U.S. are listed as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and its protection is a high priority among coastal conservationists.

Other declining shorebirds include the American oystercatcher and several species of tern, says Comins, and there are many other species that also nest on the shoreline and can benefit from traffic restrictions on beaches.

Cape Hatteras isn’t the only place with these kinds of regulations in place. In Cape Cod, officials have been known to limit or close certain off-roading corridors on the beach to protect nesting shorebirds, particularly piping plovers. On parts of Long Island, driving restrictions are put in place during nesting season as well.

And even in places like Comins’ state of Connecticut, where driving on the beach is not permitted, certain areas of the beach are fenced off during nesting season to protect shorebirds from pedestrians. The key in these situations, Comins says, is to foster community awareness about the plight of shorebirds and balance beach recreation with the welfare of the birds. “It’s a goal of ours to make sure that people have access to the shore and that the birds also have a chance for success,” he says.