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Coast Will Be Clearer for Threatened Birds

Wildlife: Restrictions added after U.S. designates much of county's shore a critical nesting area for western snowy plover.


Beach-goers will be confronted with more restrictions this year as Ventura County officials get serious about protecting skittish rare birds that nest in the sand.

In response to a lawsuit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recently designated much of the county coastline as critical habitat for the western snowy plover, a threatened species. About 200 of the birds spend summers at McGrath, Ormond, San Buenaventura and Hollywood beaches, as well as at Point Mugu and the mouth of the Santa Clara River.

The changes will not be dramatic, though dog-walkers and sunset strollers may encounter new fences and signs warning them to keep out of nesting areas.

At McGrath State Beach, signs and fences have been posted over more than a quarter-mile of beach and dunes. At the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, beaches the birds use are now off-limits to military personnel.

Beachcombing for driftwood and kelp removal will be discouraged because the birds eat bugs from plants that wash ashore. Park rangers will encourage people to keep dogs on leashes so they don't frighten or kill birds, according to the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Off-road vehicle use, particularly at Ormond Beach, will face increased enforcement, and beach-goers will be urged to pick up trash, which attracts owls and gulls that prey on plover chicks, according to the agency.

But while beach closures remain an option, for now the agency is relying on public education and limited restrictions to protect the birds during the six months they live on the Central Coast, said Lee Ann Naue, biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service.

"The disruptions are going to be very small. It may be a slight inconvenience, but it's nothing to get upset about," said Neil Ziegler, president of the Ventura Audubon Society. The society, as well as other environmental groups, has for years used fences at some county beaches to protect plovers and California least terns.

The changes occurring at Ventura County beaches are mild compared with Santa Barbara County, where beaches at Vandenberg Air Force Base that were traditionally open to the public were closed this year to protect the plover and a salamander. Both species are safeguarded under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Under the law, harassment or destruction of a protected species or its habitat is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $50,000 fine.

Deciding limitations on beach access involves balancing the needs of people who flock to the beach during the same months that the birds need peace and quiet to rear their young, officials say. Many shorebirds spend the summer in Alaska, but plovers typically arrive in Southern California in mid-March and April and leave in October.

Whether the restrictions will work is open to question. For example, at Ormond Beach, local law enforcement officers and community leaders have battled with off-road vehicle users for years to keep the machines off the beach. Although there are fewer encroachments today, trucks occasionally ram the fences, and somebody recently carried an all-terrain vehicle over a barricade to get to the beach, said Roma Armbrust of the Ormond Beach Observers, an Oxnard community group.

"We've had a significant impact on our beaches in Southern California. I hate to tell people they can't recreate at the beaches, but people are causing this problem," Naue said.

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