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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 1:05 pm | Fair 70º


Ron Fink: Who Is Winning, the People of Lompoc Valley or Western Snowy Plover?

The western snowy plover is a little bird with friends in high places — and I don’t mean its creator.

A little more than 20 years ago, a group of hardened environmental activists spent some time studying this little bird and in their shifty way isolated their findings to somehow segregate the birds that live on that Pacific shoreline from the millions other WSP in North and South America.

The U.S. Geological Survey supported an extensive DNA study by Leah Gorman that concluded, "Our study provides no evidence of genetic differentiation between coastal and inland populations." This study was promptly marginalized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The activist’s lofty claim was that by eliminating humans from the WSP’s daily surroundings, the birds would somehow prosper and their numbers would rise dramatically — if only they could find the right spot to test their theory.

The Salton Sea and Mono Lake are two large breeding areas; in fact, the environmentalist-rich south coast of Santa Barbara also hosts breeding pairs, but the tourist industry seems to be far more important than the WSP and the activists wanted an exclusive laboratory for their work.

Vandenberg Air Force Base has 32 miles of absolutely beautiful shoreline, and because the Department of Defense is required by federal law to implement any direction of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or the Environmental Protection Agency, the beach at Vandenberg was the perfect spot.

The first challenge was to establish that humans were responsible for WSP losses. No problem — they manufactured “evidence.” They did this by observing people walking on the beach, thus a nexus was established between nest losses and humans. After that they published a recovery plan in the federal register that effectively closed Vandenberg AFB beaches from March to September until their unrealistically and scientifically unsupported recovery goal was met.

After some negotiation, championed by then-Supervisor Joni Gray, Vandenberg AFB officials established a small public open space at Surf Beach saying they would monitor the closure areas and only close the beaches after they observed a number of closure violations. A footprint in the sand was considered a violation.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determined that in order for the program to be successful and lift restrictions, the beach would have to sustain more than 400 adult breeding birds for 10 years. That’s nearly twice the number they observed as the baseline in the 1990s. That number has only been achieved once in 20 years and the average has been only 228 pairs.

So, how many people have been really responsible for nest losses since the aggressive monitoring plan was put into place? At the close of the nesting season in 2011, a report written by Janene Scully (now a Noozhawk reporter) in “Space Country,” a periodic news publication circulated on Vandenberg AFB, stated, “Some 214 nests were lost to predators this year. By comparison, only 43 nests were lost in 2010.”

Only one nest of the 214 lost was reported damaged by humans even though 32 violations were issued that year.

Recently, a report in the Santa Barbara News-Press said that “human interference isn't the only way nests are lost. In 2014, 427 nests were 'initiated,' or started by plovers. Of those, 164 hatched and 186 were lost to predation. Twenty-seven nests failed and 27 appeared to have been abandoned. Twenty-one were lost to the tides and two were lost to unknown fates.” This was after the Air Force went to great expense to bulldoze sand dunes to increase the breeding area!

So, trying to calculate the risk humans pose would produce a fraction so minuscule that you have to wonder why so much effort is being expended to eliminate people from the beach when nature seems to be the culprit.

These numbers have been fairly consistent for the last 20 years. The anomaly was in 2004 when miraculously 420 pairs were counted. Since this was the only year this occurred you have to question the accuracy of the count.

When all this was being discussed, a delisting petition was submitted to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. How did the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service treat the petition? It changed the rules and discounted the findings of the DNA study that the U.S. Geological Survey had commissioned and denied the request!

Closing Surf Beach and Ocean Park appears to be politically motivated since the recovery plan lists hundreds of breeding sites along the Pacific coastline, including seven other sites in Santa Barbara County. It is much easier to close a beach on military property than it is to close public beaches in Santa Barbara, Goleta or Carpinteria.

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

So, who is winning — the people of the Lompoc Valley or the western snowy plover?

The WSP is not recovering as evidenced by the relatively static breeding pair counts, and the people of the Lompoc Valley have lost use of Surf Beach. There are no winners.

— 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]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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