CHATHAM — State and federal officials last week trumpeted a new statewide plan that gives communities more control when it comes to managing populations of threatened piping plovers. But when it comes to access to Chatham's stretch of North (Nauset) Beach by off-road vehicles, experts say not much has changed.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife released a 26-year statewide Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that will promote long-term conservation for the shorebird while increasing the flexibility of recreational management on beaches with nesting plovers.
“The increased flexibility provided by the HCP is very attractive not only to Orleans but to many other towns on the Cape and elsewhere in the state,” Orleans Selectman David Dunford said in a news release. “We look forward to partnering with MassWildlife in successfully implementing this very innovative program that protects endangered species and protects the use of the beach for our citizens.”
The HCP prescribes steps to minimize effects to plovers from HCP activities, such as monitoring, escorting over-sand vehicles and limiting the amount of beach or number of pairs that can be affected each year. An annual sliding scale would enable MassWildlife to allow more activities as the statewide plover population increases, or less if it decreases.
So far, only three towns have requested to take part in the HCP: Orleans, Barnstable and Plymouth. Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said Chatham is preparing its application for submission next week to allow participation next summer.
The town of Orleans negotiated its own HCP with state and federal regulators, and Duncanson said Chatham officials are still discussing ways the towns can work together. When it comes to off-road vehicle access, Chatham's small portion of the barrier beach can be reached only by driving through Orleans.
As of early this week, Orleans had not yet been able to open its portion of the beach to vehicles because of nesting plovers. The situation in Chatham is different, Duncanson said.
“Orleans has piping plover issues. We have piping plover issues and least tern issues,” and because the two species nest at different times, the closure is likely to be longer in Chatham, he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the terns are just finalizing their nesting intentions right now,” he said. The new HCP applies only to piping plovers.
The HCP may ultimately prove useful in easing conflicts between plovers and people on south-facing beaches like Harding's Beach. For instance, should plovers nest in an area close to the access road between the two public parking lots at Harding's Beach, under the HCP, town officials might be allowed to relocate that nest.
“To me, that's where it's going to be most effective is a situation like that,” Duncanson said. “It's going to remain to be seen how effective it's going to be out on Nauset Beach,” where there can be a dozen nests or more at any given time.
Theoretically, the new HCP could allow the town to open South Beach to vehicle access, as some town officials have proposed doing. But in practice, there's no way for vehicles to reach the town-owned barrier beach without trespassing on private property.
“That issue would need to be addressed first,” he said.
In addition to addressing access activities, the new HCP includes a provision for officials to control predators that eat piping plover chicks or eggs.
“We are closer than ever to recovery of piping plovers, and that success has been built over 30 years of dedicated efforts in the Commonwealth by municipal, private, federal and state landowners, all levels of government, and other organizations,” Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Wendi Weber wrote in a news release. “This agreement will achieve more plover conservation over the long haul by fostering community support and carefully easing challenges caused by increasing demand for beaches and a growing shorebird population.”
When it comes to the plover recovery in Massachusetts, Weber credited the use of symbolic fencing around nests and the use of beach regulations such as those that require dogs to be kept on leashes.
“The Habitat Conservation Plan will allow beach managers to achieve a balance between endangered species restoration and public access for outdoor recreation,” said Matthew Beaton, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Conservationists are cautious when it comes to the new plan. Mass Audubon's Coastal Waterbird Program Director Katharine Parsons said her organization will work with communities and regulators to make sure the plan is carried out responsibly.
“Achieving the broad goals of the plan will depend on the quality of its implementation, especially in minimizing and avoiding risks to plovers while allowing appropriate beach management flexibility,” she said. She urged the governor and the legislature to provide MassWildlife with sufficient funds to carry out the plan.