The federal government proposed today to protect smaller but more numerous sections of West Coast beaches as habitat for the western snowy plover, saying it hoped to reduce conflicts between the tiny shore bird and people playing in the sand.

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. – The federal government proposed today to protect smaller but more numerous sections of West Coast beaches as habitat for the western snowy plover, saying it hoped to reduce conflicts between the tiny shore bird and people playing in the sand.


The new critical habitat proposal, prompted by a federal court order won by Coos County commissioners on grounds the original did not include a proper economic impact statement, comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering petitions to lift Endangered Species Act protection for the bird.


Paul Henson, asssistant manager of the agency’s California-Nevada Operations Office, said he hoped to use the critical habitat process to open as much beach as possible to recreation while providing what the plover needs to recover, without having to resort to heavy-handed regulation.


“There are going to be areas where beach recreation should be a priortity,” Henson said from Sacramento, Calif. “If that impacts plovers, hopefully they are doing well enough in other areas that they can withstand that contact.”


The proposal calls for establishing 35 units covering 17,299 acres, a reduction of 11 percent in area from the 28 units covering 19,474 acres designated in 1999. Federal land comprises 26 percent of the proposed area, state or other public land 51 percent, and private land 23 percent.


The reductions came from eliminating military land where habitat protections are in place, fine-tuning mapping, and a better understanding of the habitat needs of the plover, the agency said.


An estimated 2,600 snowy plovers are distributed along the coast in California, Oregon and Washington, with the highest numbers in California and fewest in Washington. The birds forage for food in the surf and lay camouflaged eggs in depressions in bare sand. They are down to 28 nesting sites, due primarily to European beach grass being planted to stabilize shifting dunes. Gains in populations have been made recently by killing foxes and crows that prey on the nests and clearing beach grass.


During nesting season, restrictions have been imposed on driving, running dogs and walking on beaches near nesting areas, prompting loud complaints from some beach users.


Several popular beaches on the Oregon Coast were considered for critical habitat, but not proposed. They include the Necanicum, Nahalem, and Netarts areas. Oregon has suggested its own plover protections.


Fish and Wildlife is almost done with a review of whether the plover should stay on the threatened species list at all. It was sought by the Surf Ocean Beach Commission of Lompoc, Calif., and the city of Morro Bay, Calif. They argue that plovers on the beach are no different from more numerous inland populations.


Coos County Commissioner John Griffith, who has battled restrictions on beach access intended to protect plover nests for years, said the new critical habitat proposal is still too large, and includes areas uninhabited by plovers.


He added that it will be difficult to offer comment to Fish and Wildlife on the proposal, because the economic impact study is not finished.


The plover habitat proposal represents a far smaller reduction than the Bush administration has recently proposed for salmon and bull trout.


Wendell Wood of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group, said he thought that was because the plover inhabits areas unsuitable for development or exploitation of natural resources, resulting in less political pressure on the Bush administration.


After gathering public comment, Fish and Wildlife is to make a final decision on plover habitat by Sept. 1, 2005. A final plan for rebuilding plover populations is also due next year.


Fish and Wildlife has long maintained that critical habitat provides no more protection for wildlife than being listed as a threatened or endangered species, arguing that recovery depends on voluntary steps by various interests more than government regulation.


Environmentalists counter that the critical habitat section of the Endangered Species Act calls for restoration of a species, while listing just provides for survival. Last August, they won a federal appeals court ruling directing Fish and Wildlife to provide for the recovery of the northern spotted owl when considering logging in critical habitat on national forests, not just survival.