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Plovers and Your Beach Community
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Many of us are living in beach communities where dogs have been banned from the beach or allowed on the beach only under the restraint of a leash.  Despite our position that the Western Snowy Plover should be delisted by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), we recognize that USFWS is stalling.  It is worthwhile to address the plover situation as it currently stands, and attempt to improve our access within the framework the “threatened” status of the plover provides.  The objective of this article is to help you evaluate the environmental issues that relate to the plover at your community.  This should provide you guidance in evaluating whether a request for modification of restrictions is appropriate.

 

First, you should access the publication linked (here), the USFWS Draft Recovery Plan for the Western Snowy Plover.  Appendix B and C contain specifics regarding the snowy plover’s circumstance in your particular area.  Appendix K will apprise you of the key factors other than dogs which affect the plover’s viability (as acknowledged by USFWS).  Armed with this information, you are ready to move forward.

 

Many of you will find that the snowy plover does not nest or breed at your beach location – as is the case at Ocean Beach.  The Draft Recovery Plan indicates that in most instances, despite implementation of best management practices, these same locations hold no promise for the plover to nest or breed there in the future.  Conversations with Gary Page of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) reveal that this conclusion was drawn primarily because the level of human activity is too high on some California beaches to ever support a breeding population. (Gary Page was a key contributor to, and is cited extensively in the USFWS Draft Recovery Plan for the Western Snowy Plover.)  This means the survival of the Western Snowy Plover population will not be impacted by the management of your beach unless plovers succumb to predation or are so traumatized at your beach they are unable to subsequently breed elsewhere.

 

No current studies have found dogs to be predators of the snowy plover.  It is well established, however, that ravens and gulls are predators of the snowy plover population.  It has been postulated by some that the presence of dogs at the beach actually aids the plover, as dogs seem to interfere with the predation of plovers by the ravens and gulls.  It has been speculated that dogs protect plovers by occasionally chasing and/or distracting ravens and gulls.  Maybe the fact that dog walkers help to clean up trash on the beaches minimizes the attraction of predators such as ravens and gulls.  It is unfortunate this aspect of the ecosystem at the beach was never considered or studied when decisions were made regarding dogs and plovers on our beaches. 

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We do know that when dogs were isolated from the endangered bank swallows population at the southern end of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the predation of the swallow by birds of prey increased dramatically.  With respect to predation of the plover, the only absolute is that your environmental plan should include monitoring (and possible intervention) with regards to the predatory bird population. There should be ticketing for violation of litter laws, and removal of dead or dying wildlife on the beach which serves to attract predators of the plover.

 

The last issue to be addressed is the potential for off-leash dogs to disturb or traumatize the plover so as to interfere with their subsequent breeding.  There is only one “study” that we are aware of that has evaluated the interaction between dogs and the plover in a non-breeding location.  This was a “study” done by Daphne Hatch for the GGNRA (National Park Service) at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.  The statistics are as follows:  5,692 dogs were observed at the beach.  19 were observed chasing plovers.

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Statistically, less than one third of one percent of the dogs observed chased plovers, and none was ever reported to have caught or harmed a plover.  We use quotes around the term “study” because this was more of a series of observations.  A scientific study usually requires that those collecting data be unbiased (in this case the data was provided by volunteers who were bird enthusiasts).  Additionally, a scientific study would have to compensate or make allowances for additional factors affecting the situation other than dogs.  For example, if a plover flies away from its roosting spot was it because of a dog 25 feet away, the person with him, or perhaps the raven which touched down 30 feet away?

 

It is legitimate to observe that dogs do not appear to be predators of the plover.  It is also legitimate to observe that the frequency with which dogs chase the plover is extremely low.  This “study” went on to speculate that plovers were more likely to take flight when approached even inadvertently by a dog as opposed to being approached by a human.     It is also stated in this study that the “disturbance” of the plover by dogs causes the plover to expend valuable energy to avoid the dog.  This expenditure of energy is, in turn, postulated by some to be the rationale for leashing dogs or banning dogs on the beach.  These people worry that the plover may not be able to compensate for this increased energy expenditure.  However, given that snowy plovers are reported traveling up to 1,140 km from breeding sites and up to 50 km between sites during winters on the California coast, the deleterious effects of occasionally walking, running, or even flying a short distance down the beach are hardly obvious.  This is NOT the type of evidence which should be utilized to establish public policy which denies a large segment of the population access to a coveted resource.

 

How does the situation differ if the snowy plover IS nesting and breeding on your beach?  Careful reading of the USFWS document indicates that the interaction between dogs and plovers which adversely affected the survival of the species appears to be the situation where dogs inadvertently stepped upon and crushed plover eggs.  We do not have reports of dogs actively seeking out plover eggs or chicks to consume them as is the case with ravens and gulls.  The USFWS document does recommend in locations where the plover is breeding, the construction of exclosure fencing.  This fencing is designed to let plovers in and out, but restrict people, dogs and predatory birds from gaining entrance to these areas where the plover has located its nest.  Certainly the construction of exclosure fencing appears to be adequate to mitigate any danger dogs or their owners might inadvertently represent to the plover population.  Why not subsequently allow unleashed dogs and their owners to enjoy the beach? 

 

Our conclusion in all of this is that too often the management of dogs by leashing or banning them entirely is the primary and only response to a need for protecting the plover.  This is not only inadequate, but appears to be misguided.  Off-leash dogs under proper voice control pose no documented threat to the plover and in fact, may be an ally to the plover.  The more important issues of known predators and the litter that attracts them as well as obvious disturbances such as fires, fireworks and motorized vehicles should be addressed aggressively.


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