Friday, March 23 , 2018, 12:48 am | Mostly Cloudy 54º


Ron Fink: Saving Western Snowy Plover at VAFB Seems Futile Effort

Closing Surf Beach for several months each year to prove that a science project will work is clearly becoming a futile effort.

But, once again a tiny shore bird, the Western Snowy Plover, has partially closed sizable portions of nearby Surf Beach to all the children and visitors to the Lompoc Valley from March until September. 

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan to “recover” a bird species that has been proven to be prevalent in the western United States is the cause; but, has the plan been effective?

You may remember the clamor surrounding a proposal in the late 1990s to completely close the beach from March to September each year.

Biologists were blaming people for the loss of nests; therefore, people would have to be eliminated from the beach scape. In the intervening years, they have been proven wrong; but no matter, the closures remain in place.

Will they end? Probably never. Environmentalists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have established unattainable thresholds for a full reopening of Surf Beach and Ocean Park, therefore seasonal closures are likely to remain enforced by Vandenberg AFB for decades to come.

The Western Snowy Plover recovery plan calls for a sustained population of 400 adult birds over a 10-year period.

According to Vandenberg environmental officials, Western Snowy Plover populations have reached the recovery number “only once, in 2004.” That’s almost 15-years ago. Apparently, the birds haven’t read the plan.

The 2016 monitoring and management report produced for Vandenberg AFB documents the progress thusly:

“The number of breeding snowy plovers observed, and nests initiated in 2016 (289 and 385, respectively) was 6% and 12% lower, respectively, than observed in 2015. We attribute these decreases to loss of breeding habitat due to strong winter storms.”

“Predators accounted for 58% of nest losses in 2016 compared to 24% in 2015, 34% in 2014, 20% in 2013, 37% in 2012, and 52% in 2011.”

Note that humans were not the cause of nest losses and that the number of nests initiated fluctuates dramatically from season to season. It looks like the predators don’t pay attention to beach closures.

So, how many banded birds can be found to return the following year at VAFB?

In 2011, 148 birds were banded; in 2016, only six of those could be found. In 2013, 172 birds were banded; in 2016 only 22 of them could be found. And, finally 336 birds were banded in 2015; in 2016, only 69 of those could be found.

These birds’ lifecycle averages about three-to-five years, so after several generations, the number of breeding pairs has not increased substantially despite beach closures.

Harassment of beach visitors, and the hundreds of thousands of national defense dollars that have been spent each year by VAFB environmental professionals to expand the habitat and patrol the beaches searching for nests have produced no meaningful results other than data gathering.

Prior to the original closures, Lompoc residents pointed out several studies performed for the USFWS that established the fact that the Western Snowy Plover is transient in nature.

Banded birds from the coastline of California and Oregon were routinely found at the Salton Sea, Mono Lake and the Great Salt Lake. But, a location was needed to “study the WSP.” Why not the controlled spaces at VAFB?

The bottom line here is that if the history of the last couple of decades is any indicator, the beaches accessible from the Lompoc Valley will be closed every year, while other habitats remain open to the public.

Visitors to Lompoc need not bring little buckets and shovels for their kids, plan on building sand castles or allow their dogs to romp of the beach; all these activities are prohibited.

Closing Surf Beach and Ocean Park appears to be politically motivated since other public beaches in Santa Barbara County also are listed as critical habitat for the Western Snowy Plover, and they remain open year-around.

It is much easier to close a beach on military property than it is to close tourist-rich beaches on the South Coast.

In the meantime, locals can just be happy the military might of the U.S. Air Force is in high gear and the Western Snowy Plover will be “protected,” even if the science and bird counts don’t support the planned recovery goals and never will.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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