Despite December's stay-at-home orders in San Luis Obispo County, Oceano Dunes state park hasn't closed to day-use off-roading. That’s as California’s state park agencies face a lawsuit for alleged unlawful killing of threatened wildlife.
Once a particular plant or animal is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, it gains protections to ensure its survival—and recovery. Western snowy plovers are on the threatened list and nest on the shore of Central Coast beaches, including at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.
The environmental group Center for Biological Diversity argues in a lawsuit recently filed in federal court that vehicular access at Oceano Dunes is killing plovers and other endangered animals.
Officials with California’s state park agency have declined to comment on the pending litigation.
"None of the facts are in dispute," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "[State Park employees] find the carcasses, they admit they were run over, they admit they don’t have a permit. It’s clear violations of the Endangered Species Act."
Miller said snowy plovers are frequently hit and run over by off-roading vehicles, and despite various warnings from the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Department of California State Parks refuses to restrict vehicular access in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
"Frankly, they don’t particularly care about the protected species, I don’t think they particularly care about the state or federal wildlife laws," Miller said. "They believe that their constituency are the off-roaders and no one else."
Miller said he hopes the lawsuit is successful and forces the agency to implement permanent protections for threatened shorebirds and the steelhead trout that live in Arroyo Grande Creek.
Oceano Dunes closed to vehicles in March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. That off-roading closure continued in July due to an order from the California Coastal Commission to protect snowy plovers during the nesting season. Oceano Dunes reopened to vehicles on October 30.
While camping overnight on the dunes remains off-limits, State Parks said in early December that day-use will continue because "mental health is physical health."
Meanwhile, State Parks has been working on a proposed 'Habitat Conservation Plan.' That plan may allow the agency to receive a permit for lawful killing—or take—of snowy plovers in exchange for conservation measures. But Miller thinks it is unlikely the plan will be approved.
"The plan is terrible," Miller said. "It’s not an endangered species conservation plan, it’s a dune buggy conservation plan. It’s basically a plan to actually expand off-road vehicle use at Oceano Dunes and reduce the amount of protected breeding habitat for the shorebirds."
At a California Coastal Commission meeting soon after the dunes reopened to motorbikes and trucks, Oceano resident Jennifer Roakes argued for unrestricted vehicular use, for the health of people over birds.
"We’ve been waiting seven months for [the park's reopening]...I have a bad ankle, I cannot walk on the beach, my husband has a heart condition. This beach allows us to be outside in the fresh air. It’s terrible to restrict it," Roakes.
Oceano resident Cynthia Replogle is a vocal opponent of continued off-roading on the beach.
"For seven months, with the Ocean Dunes closed to vehicles, we had access to enjoy a typical California beach," Replogle told the Commission. "All that changed when the gates opened to a parade of flag-waving trucks that crushed clams under their tires and dirt bikes that drove through flocks of birds."
A court date has not yet been set in the suit, said Miller. And it's still an unknown when the Coastal Commission will make a decision on the proposed Habitat Conservation Plan.