UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve will turn in an application for a grant this Friday to pay for permanent fencing around the habitat of endangered western snowy plovers on Sands Beach.

The proposal, which was approved by the California Coastal Commission in November, has not yet received funding for the fences, but Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval said she intends to ask for money from the UCSB Shoreline Preservation Fund. The SPF, a seven-member campus organization, uses a $3 per student per quarter tuition fee to fund coastal education and restoration projects in Santa Barbara.

There are approximately 180 snowy plovers – roughly 10 percent of the Pacific Coast population – on Sands beach, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The fenced-off area of the beach covers about 400 meters where the plovers roost, beginning at the mouth of the Devereux Slough and running north toward Elwood. The fences will be moved regularly to allow beach users to walk from one end of the roost to the other.

The small shorebirds spend about 10 months of the year at Sands, but migrate to other beaches for two months in the spring or summer to breed. Two breeding pairs stayed at the beach last summer for the first time in 30 years, and produced two chicks in June.

“It shows that if you make the habitat good for them, they can come back,” Sandoval said.

Breeding pairs do not ensure success, however. In 1985, two eggs were found crushed on the beach. And last year, a crow ate one of the chicks almost immediately after it was born. The reserve put in temporary fencing to protect the other.

Because plovers are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the reserve must attempt to protect them, or face fines from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In a draft recovery plan for the Pacific Coast population of plovers, the USFWS set a goal of four breeding pairs at Sands each year.

The COPR permanent fencing is intended to prevent people from bothering the roosting, or non-breeding birds. On beaches with frequent disturbances, such as Goleta Beach, plovers will abandon the beach and not return to breed. Goleta Beach once had a large population of plovers, but as people moved in, the plovers left.[MJV1]

“Most of the beaches in the county that have become heavily popular for recreation, the plovers have abandoned,” Sandoval said.

Studies done by reserve co-director Kevin Lafferty show that the temporary fencing at Sands reduced disturbances to the plover by 90 percent.

Plover Research

In one study, Lafferty watched for things moving within 50 meters of the bird and recorded the plover’s response. If it moved or flew, Lafferty categorized the event as a disturbance.

Critics of the COPR plan focused on the definition of disturbance as an example of what they called the project’s bad science.

“He was setting out to show that the plovers were being harmed,” said Brad Hufschmid, a 20-year resident of Isla Vista and environmental studies teacher at a local high school, just before the Coastal Commission approved the plan in November. “That’s poor science.”

Lafferty, however, said the disturbances were clear enough, and that he watched for the birds to look up at the source and then run or fly away.

“If I went up to you and stepped on your foot, and you said ‘ouch,’ it’s always possible you said ouch’ and I just randomly happened to step on you,” he said of the possibility that the birds were randomly choosing those moments to run or fly away. “But it’s unlikely.”

Hufschmid and several other I.V. residents also said the birds were disappearing faster from the Channel Islands Reserve, where there are no people, and that people might scare away predators.

Lafferty said an explosion in the seal and sea lion population at the islands has hurt the birds there. He also said human trash is responsible for bringing many of the predators, such as skunks and crows, most responsible for plover deaths.[MJV2]

The study showed that plovers flew away most often after disturbances created by crows. Humans and dogs also bothered the birds, causing them to make short flights to escape the disturbance. Although flying or running away is not directly harmful to the bird, repeated disturbances could cost the birds energy, and Lafferty said shorebirds that cannot get a fat reserve have low survival rates.

Lafferty’s study found that each plover was disturbed, on average, 1.4 times per hour on weekdays and 2.2 times per hour on weekends. He estimated that each bird was disturbed 115 times per week.[MJV3]

“Disturbances use energy, thin them out and tend to reduce breeding,” Sandoval said. “We can’t stick a bird on a treadmill, but this has been done hundreds of times [with other animals]. We just use good sense and extrapolate.”

In June, just after the two plover chicks were born, the COPR installed temporary fencing to protect the chicks and the roosting birds. Sandoval went to the Coastal Commission with a plan for permanent fencing, which was approved by a unanimous vote.

Plover Money

All that is left to do is find money for the permanent fence. Sandoval applied for and was denied a grant from the Wendy McCaw Foundation; she intends to turn in an application to SPF this week.

SPF received 21 grant proposals last quarter and gave out over $90,000, the most in the group’s two-year history.

The application deadline for this quarter is Friday, and SPF Grants Manager Scott Bull said that so far he had received only one application, from the More Mesa Education Program. SPF has $85,000 to give out the rest of the year[MJV4].

SPF will decide by considering proposals from the grant applicants in public meetings over the next six weeks, beginning Monday at 6:00 p.m. in the Goleta Valley Room of the UCen.

Bull said he didn’t know whether the seven-member board would vote to give COPR the grant, although SPF has funded several projects at the reserve in the past, including a snowy plover docent program run by the National Audobon Society.