Following several petitions and a lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said last week it would re-examine the status of the western snowy plover population – paying special attention the birds’ sex lives.

Over the next 12 months, the USFWS will conduct a review of scientific evidence suggesting that the coastal snowy plover, a large population of which resides near the West Campus of UCSB at Coal Oil Point, is genetically identical to the population of inland snowy plovers. However, UCSB experts maintain that the majority of research shows the two plover populations are separate and distinct species.

If the two populations are found to be the same and interbreed, local beach-access proponents argue the plover should be removed from a list of threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act because the combined size of both populations would be too large to warrant federal protection.

Currently, the USFWS designates 18,000 acres covering 180 miles of coastline in California, Oregon and Washington as critical plover habitat, including the several-acre Coal Oil Point Reserve at Sands Beach. According to the USFWS, there are fewer than 2,000 breeding plovers currently inhabiting the Pacific coast. The western snowy plover is a small bird weighing one or two ounces. It is approximately five to seven inches in length with a pale gray-brown back and a white chest.

The USFWS decision to study de-listing the plover stemmed from a February 2004 lawsuit filed by the libertarian-aligned Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Santa Barbara County-based Surf Ocean Beach Commission and the city of Morro Bay.

“I’m pleased,” said Rob Rivett, a principle attorney for the foundation. “It was certainly the right decision to make.”

The suit alleged that the USFWS has been ignoring evidence demonstrating that the coastal and inland varieties of the snowy plover are the same, and that coastal access restrictions have damaged Morro Bay’s economy by limiting beach-related tourism.

Rivett said suing was the only way to get the government’s attention since the USFWS is understaffed and backlogged with litigation, resulting in its inability to respond within the required 90-day period to plover de-listing petitions filed in 2002 and 2003.

“It’s definitely unfortunate that the only way [the USFWS] will respond is if they’re sued,” Rivett said. “Their priority is determined by the courts.”

Cristina Sandoval, director of the Coal Oil Point Reserve, said much of the evidence the foundation cites in its arguments – specifically an unpublished master’s thesis by a graduate student at the University of Oregon – is severely flawed.

“I’ve studied all the data of the last 20 years,” Sandoval said. “The plovers are separate. There is no question.”

She said the thesis study, which concluded there was no genetic difference between the two types of plovers, used genetic markers that evolve too slowly to register a change between populations that have recently separated. In addition, the study’s sample size was too small to be statistically significant.

Sandoval said extensive studies designed to detect interbreeding between inland plovers and their coastal variety have turned up little evidence of such sexual interaction – a necessity for the two populations to be considered one according to the Endangered Species Act.

“Banding data has only shown one possible instance of an inland plover interbreeding with a coastal snowy plover,” Sandoval said.

While some banding data, obtained by tracking plovers that have been affixed with special identification tags, has shown that inland plovers interact with coastal plovers, Sandoval said this is not proof that the two populations are interbreeding.

She said there is an overlap between the wintering season for the inland plovers, who move to southern beaches in search of warmer weather, and the breeding season for the coastal plovers, which explains why the different populations of birds can sometimes be found together.

While Rivett said he isn’t sure how the wildlife service study will turn out, he said he is confident that that master’s study is a good one.

Until May 20, 2004, the wildlife service will be accepting public comments regarding the 12-month de-listing petition review process “… to ensure that the review is comprehensive and based on the best available science.”

Sandoval said the USFWS’s review will likely disprove arguments that the inland plovers are identical to the coastal variety – as long as the review is based on biology, and not on politics.

She said under the Bush administration, there has been more sympathy than usual for this type of petition and other “anti-environment” legislation.

Even if the plover was removed from the Endangered Species List, Sandoval said the status change would not affect beach access at Coal Oil Point, where a roped-off area guarded by binocular-wielding volunteer docents protects plover nesting areas.

“Whether the plovers are de-listed or not, our mission is preservation,” she said.

Jennifer Stroh, coordinator of the docent program at the Coal Oil Point Reserve, said she is looking for 50 additional volunteers to help watch over the reserve and educate beachgoers regarding the plover habitat. This breeding season, the Sands Beach reserve is already home to five plover nests, more than existed at this time last year.

Stroh said having docents helps protect the plovers and keep the beach open for public access at the same time by allowing close monitoring of the critical habitat areas. Stroh said the reserve would hold a docent training session this Saturday, April 3, from 3 to 5 p.m., at the docent office on site at Coal Oil Point. She said people interested in volunteering should call (805) 880-1195 or e-mail her at before Saturday.

“[Docents are] really important,” Stroh said. “All it takes is one crow to find those eggs and they can be destroyed in seconds.”