Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, June 10, 2020


Jeff Miller, (510) 499-9185,

California Officials Interfering With Protected Shorebirds’ Nesting at Oceano Dunes

Snowy Plovers Thriving During Vehicle Closure, Group Calls to Keep Cars Away

OCEANO, Calif.— California parks officials may have violated the Endangered Species Act by interfering with western snowy plovers’ nesting activities at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, according to a warning letter sent today by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Western snowy plovers have expanded their Oceano Dunes nesting area since the California beach was closed to vehicles on March 29 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the California Department of Parks and Recreation has interfered with nesting behavior by scuffing out “scrapes” made by plovers before nesting and installing mylar flagging to deter expanded nesting — actions that may violate federal law.

“Snowy plovers are making a comeback at Oceano Dunes since vehicles were prohibited, and parks officials shouldn’t be interfering,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. “It’s unconscionable that State Parks is preventing expanded nesting to clear the way for cars and off-road vehicles. The very folks who are supposed to protect these incredibly imperiled birds seem willing to jeopardize their recovery.”

State Parks confirmed 35 active snowy plover nests in Oceano Dunes as of May 27, 15 of which were outside fenced nesting areas. State Parks then fenced some of the new nesting areas. But on June 7 the Center documented 12 fledgling and 15 adult snowy plovers outside of all protective fencing and vulnerable to vehicle traffic.

The Center will speak at today’s California Coastal Commission meeting asking for enforcement action against State Parks and for Oceano Dunes to remain closed to vehicle traffic through September, when plover nesting season ends.

Oceano Dunes is managed by the California State Parks’ Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division. The area includes about 1,500 acres of sand dunes and six miles of beachfront where motorized and off-road vehicles are driven. Every year vehicle use on the beach and off-roading in the dunes results in plovers being found run over.

Male plovers form nests by scraping holes in the sand where females then lay eggs. State Parks confirmed its staff is “scuffing out” plover scrapes found in the riding areas before the birds can mate and “placing multiple stakes with streamers” in an attempt to deter nesting in the riding areas. Both actions appear to violate the Endangered Species Act by harming and harassing protected plovers through interfering with breeding behavior.

Conservationists have been urging State Parks to implement wildlife protection measures recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Coastal Commission to avoid plover deaths. These include decreasing vehicle numbers, prohibiting night riding and making seasonal plover habitat closures permanent.


Western snowy plovers are one of the most threatened shorebirds in North America and have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1993. Although plover numbers along the West Coast are slowly increasing and habitat conditions have improved, the plover population in the Central Coast overall is declining. Plovers are still threatened by loss of nesting habitat, predation and habitat degradation from development, recreation, and sea-level rise. Other threats are disturbance by humans, off-road vehicles and off-leash dogs.

Snowy plovers breed at Oceano Dunes between March and September. Most individual birds return year after year to the same nesting spots, generally in flat, open areas such as beaches and sand spits. Many plovers remain after the end of breeding season and throughout the fall and winter, where they are vulnerable to vehicular disturbance resulting in documented mortalities.

After the Fish and Wildlife Service warned State Parks that it was violating the Endangered Species Act for allowing the harassment and killing of plovers at Oceano Dunes, in 2017 the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the agency over harm to protected species.

For decades State Parks has delayed development of a promised habitat conservation plan to protect plovers and other endangered and threatened plants and animals at Oceano Dunes. State Parks released a draft “habitat conservation plan” this spring that would actually make conditions worse for snowy plovers, least terns and other endangered species. The draft plan prioritizes off-road recreation over the protection of wildlife, fails to address 15 areas of concern outlined by the Coastal Commission, and proposes opening 109 additional acres of dunes habitat to off-road vehicles.

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Western snowy plover at Oceano Dunes on June 7. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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