Mass Innovations, From the Beacon, May 2015

A program developed in Orleans to allow SUVs and other off-road vehicles on beaches that serve as nesting areas for piping plovers may serve as a model for other coastal communities in Massachusetts and beyond.

Rather than dealing with separate permits for each of the 10 or 11 Massachusetts towns where piping plovers breed, a single permit based on the Orleans program could be issued to each community where piping plovers are present, according to Susi von Oettingen, an endangered-species specialist in the New England office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s an applicant-driven model,” she said.

The Orleans plan, developed by Selectman John Hodgson with help from Chatham Selectman Sean Summers as well as other local officials and legislators, sets specific hours when off-road vehicles can arrive and depart from beach areas where plovers lay their eggs.

The updated regulations require, for example, that off-road vehicles enter and exit within specified timeframes of one or two hours. Drivers are also required to honk their horn in three short bursts before advancing, to scare away any plovers in the vicinity.

This spring, before the plovers arrive, local officials have been focusing on deterring seagulls as well as foxes, skunks and other small mammals.

“The plus side for the birds is that we’re actually taking actions now to fend off the predators, in a way that had not been done before,” Hodgson said.

The current population of piping plovers, ranging from North Carolina to the Canadian maritime provinces, is less than 2,000 pairs, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Concern about protecting the plovers’ breeding grounds dates back to about eight to 10 years ago, according to Hodgson. At that time, local officials began closing a popular beach to protect the plovers – for a matter of days at first but later for entire summers.

Hodgson said there was confusion about the extent that off-road vehicles were threatening the plovers, as opposed to natural predators.

“Tourists and residents [who want to drive their vehicles on the beach] have been screaming for years now, because the closures have gotten worse and worse,” Hodgson said. “You can imagine, after winters like this, people want to get out and experience the dunes. That’s why they live here.”

For more information, contact John Hodgson at (774) 722-9121.

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