Overrun by vehicles: Why Cape Hatteras’ birds and sea turtles need a break

Tire prints on Cape Hatteras beach in North Carolina. Photo by Walker Golder.

Stretching over 64 miles of the Outer Banks of North Carolina from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has a rich history as our nation’s first National Seashore. Once known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the Seashore is famous for its tumultuous storms and currents that wreaked havoc on ships.

The islands that make up the Seashore have been home to farmers, lighthouse keepers, Native Americans and watermen, among others. The Seashore is also home to rare shorebirds and sea turtles, its sandy, storm-pounded beaches providing crucial nesting grounds. And yet, populations of these beach-nesting birds are dramatically declining — up to an 84% — in the number of colonial waterbirds (birds that nest in a group) breeding at the Seashore between 1997 and 2007.

The reason?

In recent years vehicle use on the Seashore’s beaches has increased exponentially, with as many as 2,200 vehicles traveling on the beach in a given day.

This increase in motorized use has coincided with a steady decline in the numbers of numerous protected species of shorebirds and sea turtles that live and breed at the Seashore. High volume of motors on the beach deters birds and turtles from nesting in prime areas of their habitat, crush nests, eggs and chicks, and prevent hatchling turtles from reaching the ocean.

Black Skimmer on Cape Hatteras beach in North Carolina. Photo by Walker Golder.For decades, Cape Hatteras has been required under federal law to establish beach vehicle guidelines that minimize harm to wildlife and natural values of the Seashore in accordance with the best available science. The lack of an effective vehicle management plan at the Seashore has resulted in the significant decline of shorebirds and turtles. Finally, after years of inaction, the Park Service heard your calls for action and this year they are developing rules for beach driving.

The National Park Service is currently formulating rules for beach vehicle use at Cape Hatteras. The Wilderness Society, along with other conservation groups, is asking the Park Service to look at responsible vehicle management to ensure that wildlife can thrive within our national parks and provide visitors with a range of recreational activities.

These new vechicle guidelines should provide equal beach access for all visitors; put natural resources first; and include a wildlife recovery plan to reestablish healthy wildlife populations where declines has been identified.

To learn more about developments at Cape Hatteras, visit PreserveHatteras.org.

Tire tracks on Cape Hatteras beach in North Carolina. Photo by Walker Golder.
Black Skimmer on Cape Hatteras beach in North Carolina. Photo by Walker Golder.