Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 29, 2020


Jeff Miller, (510) 499-9185,

Lawsuit Aims to Protect Snowy Plovers From Off-road Vehicles at Oceano Dunes

California State Parks Must Rein In Vehicles That Kill Protected Shorebirds

OCEANO, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Department of Parks and Recreation today for continuing to allow motorized vehicle use that kills protected snowy plovers at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in federal court, notes that the Department’s actions violate the Endangered Species Act. Oceano Dunes has been closed to vehicles since late March due to COVID-19 and a July order by the California Coastal Commission to remain closed through September. But the Department intends to reopen the beach and dunes to off-road vehicle use tomorrow.

“For decades State Parks has let dune buggies and other vehicles harm snowy plovers and their habitat at Oceano Dunes, in violation of the Endangered Species Act,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center. “The agency refuses to implement adequate wildlife-protection measures and is pursuing a management plan for Oceano that would increase off-roading and make conditions worse for native wildlife.”

The Oceano Dunes recreation area in southern San Luis Obispo County includes about 1,500 acres of sand dunes and six miles of beachfront. Street-legal vehicles have been allowed to drive on the beach in the northern portion, and the southern portion is also open to off-road vehicles and motorized campers.

Last week parks officials announced they would begin reopening Oceano Dunes to motorized vehicles in three phases beginning Oct. 30. In the first phase, up to 1,000 “street-legal” motorized vehicles (Jeeps and trucks) per day will be allowed to drive on portions of Oceano Dunes and Pismo State Beach, as well as access the dunes riding area, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

More than 4,000 Center supporters sent messages to State Parks this week opposing the reopening of Oceano Dunes to vehicles.

“It’s outrageous that State Parks intends to allow night-time off-roading and driving on the beach, which will likely result in protected shorebirds being run over,” said Miller. “State Parks should also avoid any beach grading or ‘grooming’ that would alter plover foraging habitat and remove food sources.”


In 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned State Parks that it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act for allowing the harassment and killing snowy plovers at Oceano Dunes without authorization. Over the past four years, from 2016 to 2019, an average of four to six snowy plovers have been found dead or flattened in vehicle tracks each year at Oceano Dunes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recommended measures to avoid future plover deaths, including decreasing vehicle numbers, prohibiting night riding and making seasonal fencing protecting plover nesting habitat permanent. State Parks continues to refuse to implement these measures. The Center filed notices of intent to sue the agency for harassment and killing of plovers in 2009 and again in 2017.

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 California Coastal Commission, and proposes opening 109 additional acres of sensitive dunes habitat to off-road vehicles.

Western snowy plovers are rare shorebirds that have been protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1993. Although plover numbers along the West Coast are slowly increasing, they are still threatened by loss of nesting habitat, predation and disturbance by humans. The snowy plover population in the Central Coast, where Oceano Dunes is one of the most important breeding areas, is declining.

Snowy plovers nest and breed in the area between March and September, with most individual birds returning year after year to the same nesting spots, generally in flat open areas such as beaches and sandspits. The endangered California least tern also nests on these beaches and is at risk from disturbance by vehicles.

This summer the Center documented and exposed State Parks staff illegally interfering with nesting of snowy plovers in former off-road riding areas at Oceano Dunes. Staffers were preventing nesting by scuffing out “scrapes” made by plovers and installing mylar flagging to deter birds. The Coastal Commission sent State Parks a cease and desist letter and also warned the agency against deploying heavy equipment on the beach near plover nesting areas. Snowy plovers expanded their nesting and foraging areas since the beach was closed to vehicles in late March by the COVID-19 crisis.

Vehicle use at Oceano Dunes violates the Endangered Species Act by directly killing, harming and harassing snowy plovers, including causing nest abandonment and disturbing and destroying habitat. State Parks does not have a permit to incidentally “take” protected wildlife.

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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