War Rages on Cape Hatteras
The Interior Department has pledged to put wildlife before recreation in our national parks, but on a North Carolina national seashore, it's letting off-road vehicles run amok, imperiling birds and people.
In 2004 the seashore had opened this area to ORVs against the recommendations of its own biological staff and after least terns had displayed nesting behavior. When Maddock saw birds incubating and unfledged chicks he phoned the regional office in Atlanta, but the director was traveling. So he phoned the D.C. office, where a Park Service employee went on and on about the political sensitivity of the situation. For most of the day Maddock and a biological technician stood in the rain, directing traffic away from nests. Finally, the D.C. office decided that it might be okay to move the fencing out a little, but not enough to offend the ORV lobby or protect the birds. After ORVs ran over two least tern chicks, special agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service investigated this apparent breach of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by the Park Service, but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute.
A dozen years ago the seashore averaged something like 12 breeding pairs of piping plovers annually. In 2006 there were five, only one of which produced young. Seven years ago there were 41 breeding pairs of oystercatchers; in 2005 there were 24. Seven years ago 57 percent of the gull-billed terns in the state nested at Hatteras Inlet. By 2006 the species had abandoned not only Hatteras Island's 42-mile-long beach but the entire seashore. From 1993 to 2004 breeding pairs on Hatteras Island declined as follows for these colonial waterbirds: least terns, from 610 to 272; common terns, from 385 to 11; gull-billed terns, from 11 pairs to zero; and black skimmers, from 216 to 13.
And at times ORVs play the main role in chick loss and nest failure attributed to "predation." For example, last June at Hatteras Inlet two oystercatcher chicks were lost to predators due to the seashore's refusal to close the beach. When the chicks wandered into the traffic, Maddock asked ORV operators to please wait until the chicks could rejoin their parents. When the ORV operators refused, one chick fled and got nailed by a ghost crab. The other, abandoned after traffic flushed the adults, became hypothermic and got eaten by a grackle.ORVs aren't entirely to blame. Predation of eggs and chicks is a growing problem on most of the seashore. Some of this predation is the result of the massive development along the Outer Banks in the past 30 years and the corresponding increase in cats, foxes, and garbage-swilling raccoons. But ORV operators discard bait and fish entrails, and they don't like skates and sharks, so instead of releasing them, they leave them on the beach. All this offal, along with other garbage and purposeful feeding, attracts gulls, resulting in loss of eggs and chicks. When the seashore closes areas to vehicles the dearth of gulls is sudden and dramatic.
The ORV crowd correctly observes that some of the decline is due to habitat damage caused by artificial dunes constructed in vain attempts to protect roads and dwellings. Near the town of Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island, Maddock and I walked the top of a high dune built by the North Carolina State Department of Transportation. Despite all that has been learned about beach dynamics, the dune is still being maintained. After it was knocked down by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the department rebuilt it and planted beach grass. Beach birds can't nest in thick vegetation, so planting beach grass destroys what little habitat remains. From the top we looked almost straight down into the breakers. The dune had acted like a seawall, reflecting wave energy so that it carried away the beach and, at the same time, prevented the overwash that had maintained beaches on the sound side and kept vegetation down. Net result: The island is narrowing, bird habitat is vanishing, and the threat to roads and property is exploding.
Maddock asked ORV operators to please wait until the chicks could rejoin their parents. They refused. One chick fled and got nailed by a ghost crab. The other became hypothermic and got eaten by a grackle.
Not only do ORV operators destroy habitat by eliminating wrack and creating ruts chicks can't crawl out of, they're a major obstacle to habitat restoration. At Oregon Inlet, which hurls the waters of Pamlico Sound into the Atlantic, I walked across a wide beach created by a rock jetty. The jetty prevents the inlet from migrating south, as it had done from its birth in 1846 until 1962, when construction of the Bonner Bridge created easy access to Hatteras Island. But the ocean strips sand from 13-mile-long Pea Island to the south, shortening it by 10 to 15 feet every year and threatening the already decrepit bridge. Pea Island, managed as a national wildlife refuge and offering nesting habitat to three species of sea turtles and 365 species of birds, is one of the nation's last undeveloped barrier islands. But the artificial dune that supposedly protects Route 12 (the highway that runs along the whole seashore) prevents overwash and severely compromises nesting and foraging habitat. Meanwhile, the state is spending about $1 million a year rebuilding and relocating the road and clearing it of sand.
With the bridge failing structurally, a new one must be built. The cost of a longer bridge that would bypass Pea Island and all its expensive highway problems would be $425 million. The cost of replacing the short bridge and maintaining Route 12 through 2060 would be $620 million. It was a no-brainer, so in July 2003 the state Department of Transportation and 12 other state and federal agencies unanimously agreed to go with the long bridge.