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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 2:17 pm | Fair 63º


Ron Fink: Will Beach Closures Ever End in Effort to ‘Recover’ Western Snowy Plover?

So, once again a tiny shorebird, the western snowy plover, has closed nearby Surf Beach to all the children and visitors to the Lompoc Valley from June until September. The failed experiment to “recover” a bird species that has been proven to be prevalent in the United States has caused the beach to close. Why?

Will the closures end? Probably never. Environmentalists and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have established unattainable thresholds for a full reopening of Surf Beach and Ocean Park to the children of our community; therefore, seasonal closures are likely to remain enforced by Vandenberg Air Force Base for decades to come.

You may remember the clamor surrounding a proposal several years ago 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 beachscape.

At the time, several members of the Lompoc community led by then-Supervisor Joni Gray appeared at several public hearings concerning the issue. The group argued that if an area was clearly delineated with boundary markers and rules were posted to inform people of the problem that most people would follow the rules.

The outcome of these efforts was that U.S. Air Force officials would allow limited access to the beaches during the nesting season. In the meantime the USFWS required Vandenberg to “monitor” the beach and develop a citation system; 50 violations of rules agreed to by the USFWS were established as the threshold for closure.

Keep in mind that a violation can consist of actually seeing someone cross the line or walk their dog on the beach or just seeing footprints in the sand. It didn’t matter whether the violation involved disturbance of a nesting site. Just the fact that someone inadvertently violated the rules was enough.

Other reasons for a violation include a child taking his or her sand pail and scoop onto the beach. Such an activity is strictly forbidden!

When all this was being discussed, a petition was submitted to the USFWS to de-list the plover; it seems that genetically all of the plover families are interrelated and a DNA study conducted through a grant from USFWS firmly established this fact. This study was removed from circulation. Why? We don’t know.

How did the USFWS treat the petition? It changed the rules and discounted the findings of the report that it commissioned and denied the request. I guess they didn’t like the outcome of a scientific analysis so they produced another that supported their theory.

Closing Surf Beach and Ocean Park appears to be politically motivated since other public beaches in Santa Barbara County are also listed as critical habitat for the western snowy plover and they remain open. It is much easier to close a beach on military property than it is to close public beaches on the South Coast.

So, how many people have been responsible for nest losses since the aggressive monitoring plan was put into place? Apparently none! At the close of the nesting season in 2011, a report written by Janene Scully 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.”

So it looks like nature is responsible for the loss of nests, not people.

Only one nest was reported damaged by humans even though 32 violations were issued that year. So, trying to calculate the risk humans pose would produce a fraction so minute that one is left to wonder why so much effort is being expended to eliminate people from the beach.

So, how is the recovery effort going? Well, back in 2011 after nesting season wrapped up, Vandenberg biologist Samantha Kaisersatt said, “The plover recovery plan calls for a sustained population of 400 adult birds over a 10-year period. Vandenberg has reached the recovery number only once, in 2004.”

Could it be that nature, not humans, is responsible for allowing an average of about 200 nests a year?

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, these tiny birds feast on “small crustaceans, soft invertebrates and small insects.” I have trod the beach at Surf many times, and even though some of this type food can be seen there, I wonder if it’s enough to produce the food that’s needed for 400 nesting birds?

These birds' life cycle is about three years, so after nearly five generations the number of breeding pairs has not increased despite beach closures, harassment of beach visitors and the hundreds of thousands of national defense dollars that have been spent by Vandenberg AFB environmental professionals to expand the habitat and patrol the beaches searching for nests.

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.

— 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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