Defending Monterey Bay’s Snowy Plovers

A Snowy Plover near the Salinas River mouth (c) B. Matheson

A Snowy Plover near the Salinas River mouth (c) B. Matheson

From Monterey Harbor north to Watsonville and beyond, a long crescent of high dunes defines the Monterey Bay’s shore. And no single species better captures both the subtle beauty and fragility of this dune ecosystem than the Western Snowy Plover. “Snowies” can’t nest on the Rocky Shore. They can’t nest in grasslands, or agricultural fields. They require sand, invertebrates to eat, and to be left more-or-less alone from the intrusions of Homo sapiens.

While Snowy Plovers were once more widespread in Monterey Bay, today they find the conditions they need to nest and survive from roughly Sand City, north to the mouth of the Pajaro River. Here the dunescape is broad enough, unleashed dogs are few enough, and the foot traffic of beach-goers and surf-casters is light enough, that Snowy Plovers can still forage and breed, most seasons. Significant stretches of the coast are nominally protected as California State Parklands. But a scattering of privately owned footholds in the dunes present a constant risk of development, threatening to extirpate the birds from segments of the shoreline piecemeal.

Western Snowy Plover Critical Habitat Unit CA-22 from FWS

Western Snowy Plover Critical Habitat Unit CA-22 from FWS

The sandy dunes and beach of Monterey Bay, from Sand City to the Pajaro River Mouth are a critical breeding ground for Snowy Plovers

The sandy dunes and beach of Monterey Bay, from Sand City to the Pajaro River Mouth are a critical breeding ground for Snowy Plovers

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service first declared the Snowy Plover threatened with extinction in 1973. Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, that designation has brought the birds a panoply of legal protections. In 2012, after three decades of careful research, and scant improvement in the birds’ prospects, biologists identified and named all the habitat on the West Coast that was critical to the birds survival and recovery. The sandy shore of southern Monterey Bay was singled out as one such segment of crucial breeding territory and catalogued as California Critical Habitat “Zone 22.” Critical Habitat designations are more than just academic inventories. The Endangered Species Act prohibits individuals or entities from killing or harming endangered species, and destroying designated critical habitat. The impressive letter of the Law, however, can sometimes present an unfortunate contrast to its adherence and enforcement.

Two large, privately held ocean-front parcels within unit-22 fall within the municipal limits of the small commercial-industrial enclave of Sand City, near Seaside. The City and the parcel owners have long sought (and in some cases received) permissions to develop their ocean-front parcels into lucrative hotel-resort complexes. Further north, west of Marina, a decades-old mine extracts hundreds of thousands of tons of sand from the shore of Monterey’s National Marine Sanctuary, every year, causing widespread erosion of Plover habitat. On the southern edge of Zone 22, near Monterey State Beach, crowds of beach-goers and dogs, unleashed in violation of State Park regulations, swarm the beach, making it impossible for Snowy Plovers to find shelter or rest.

Jennifer Pena’s Plover Awareness Sign was one among several dozen installed on the southern shore of Monterey Bay.

Jennifer Pena’s Plover Awareness Sign was one among several dozen installed on the southern shore of Monterey Bay.

Monterey Audubon and its allies in the local conservation community have spent more than three decades endeavoring to prevent further deterioration of the Plovers’ habitat and raise public awareness of the birds’ presence. In the 1990s, Monterey Audubon volunteers were among the first wave of docents on the California coast to monitor snowy nesting success. In 2012, we partnered with State Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Seaside to make and install protective signage around the most heavily trafficked portions of the Plovers’ southern breeding range near Seaside. And, as an out-of-town developer grew closer to gaining the approvals necessary to build a 300 unit resort complex in the middle of plover nesting grounds, Monterey Audubon helped fund efforts to try and deter the project in on legal grounds and document the continuing use of the the site by the birds.

How well Monterey Bay’s Snowy Plovers will fare in coming decades remains to be seen. A rising sea, eroding shore, and a growing human population, hungry for beach access and real estate, present daunting challenges for this inconspicuous, fragile and beautiful species. But, with your support Monterey Audubon will continue to fight to grant the birds as much time and space as can be won.