Coastal access proponents from Lompoc and Morro Bay have filed a lawsuit seeking the removal of the western snowy plover from the federal list of threatened species.

Filed Feb. 3 by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), the lawsuit alleges that since 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has ignored scientific evidence showing the coastal variety of the small white and gray bird is biologically identical to the inland variety, which is not endangered.

“We think with 500 pages of science, [the FWS] would have to agree that there is scientific merit,” PLF attorney Greg Broderick said. “This is about a bird that’s not endangered, and people who want to enjoy the beach.”

Broderick said much of the government’s data collected from plover populations living near Vandenberg Air Force Base proves the coastal plover is indistinguishable from the inland plover, thus rendering its status as a distinct species under the Environmental Protection Act invalid. In addition, Broderick said a master’s thesis conducted by an Oregon State University student in June of 2000 also concluded the two birds are actually the same.

A sizable population of plovers resides in a roped-off preserve at Sands Beach off of Coal Oil Point, which is adjacent to UCSB’s west campus. During the birds’ breeding season – between March and September – volunteer docents guard the preserve’s boundaries from sunrise to sunset.

Representatives from the UCSB Snowy Plover Docent Program and the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center could not be reached for comment.

The PLF is representing the Lompoc-based Surf Ocean Beach Commission (SOBC), a group of pro-coastal access community members and small business owners, and the city of Morro Bay, which is worried about lost tourism revenue from beach access restrictions aimed at protecting plover habitats.

Both groups filed delisting petitions in 2002 and 2003, respectively, Broderick said, but the FWS has yet to respond, even though they are required by law to address each petition within 90 days. Broderick said a lawsuit was the only way the SOBC and city of Morro Bay could attract the FWS’s attention.

Jim Nickles, FWS spokesman, said the wildlife service has been studying the petition for some time and expects to make a decision on whether or not to study the possibility of delisting the plover. However, he would not give a specific time frame.

Nickles said the 90-day deadline for a petition response only applies if it is feasible for the FWS to do so, which he said is not the case in this situation.

“This office is overwhelmed with litigation,” Nickles said. “We haven’t had the staff to complete this as quickly as we would like. We get sued all the time for a lot of different things.”