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If you want to see one of the largest populations of shore birds along the East Coast, Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of Chatham, is the place to be. It's teeming with species, including cormorants, egrets, herons, terns, sandpipers and the federally protected piping plover. Twelve percent of the state's piping plover population nests on Monomoy.
The refuge is also a choice destination for kiteboarding, or kitesurfing, a sport growing in popularity. It's like a combination of windsurfing and paragliding.
But the federal agency that oversees Monomoy says kiteboarding and piping plovers are a bad mix, so it's proposed a ban on the sport there. And that's caused howls of protest from kiteboarders who believe they can enjoy their sport without posing any threat to birds.
Pete van Amson is among them. To get a sense of how much van Amson loves kiteboarding, look at his LinkedIn profile. It shows him — a 50-something financial analyst — soaring above the water on an airborne kiteboard. He owns a house in Chatham and took us to Monomoy, which is accessible only by boat.
Asked why Monomoy is a good place to kiteboard, van Amson says that when the wind is blowing, "it's probably one of the best places on the planet" thanks to its sometimes warm water, steady wind and shifting sand bars that create a changing variety of conditions.
Kiteboarders also say Monomoy is scenic and serene: gorgeous open water, undeveloped beach, frolicking seals. It's like communing with nature — and nature, says Libby Herland of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is what Monomoy is meant for.
"I cannot possibly convey in words the importance of Monomoy to migratory birds," Herland says. "It is a national wildlife refuge. It's not a park."
If Herland's agency has its way, kiteboarding on Monomoy will be no more. The Audubon Society and the Sierra Club back that position.
Back on the boat, as soon as we get to Monomoy's shore, Eric Gustafson — a kiteboarding instructor who owns a Wellfleet water sports company called Fun Seekers — spots a piping plover. They're small, grey and white, with distinctive markings.
"There's our little friend. See the ring around his neck? The black ring? He's hunting and pecking right now," Gustafson points out.
On the beach, the kiteboard set-up begins. Gustafson unrolls a kite that resembles gigantic bat wings and pumps the kite's rib-like tubes full of air. Once the kite is inflated, Gustafson hooks a harness around his waist and, with the help of the wind, jerks the kite into the air. Then he straps his feet onto what looks like an undersized surfboard and he's off, whipping across the water.
Barry Payne is getting ready to launch next. He learned to kiteboard from Gustafson and he's distraught by the proposed Monomoy ban.
"I feel it's tragic almost," Payne reflects. "This is such a beautiful part of the world and I think the people who kite really respect the environment. It seems almost crazy to me to have a sport like this that has no footprint on the earth that gets banned."
The problem with kiteboarding, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is that the kites and their shadows scare piping plovers and other shorebirds.
"Kites are a problem because to a bird that's on the ground, they see something up in the air and they think it's a predator, so they will leave the nest," Herland explains, "and when a bird leaves its nest, if it has eggs those eggs are not going to be incubated."
That's why the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed conservation plan for Monomoy prohibits kiteboarding.
"I understand why some people are upset," Herland says. "But people like kiteboarders can go anywhere. These birds don't have the ability to go to other places. They have to go where the food is and where the habitat is right for them and where there's really very little disturbance."
But the kiteboarders believe there's no proof that their sport has any negative impact on the birds. And the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that its concerns are based in part on a two-decade-old, unpublished, un-peer-reviewed master's thesis by a University of Massachusetts student who did research on how kites — not kite boarding, which wasn't yet a sport, but kites — affect piping plovers. That has Barry Payne incensed.
"I mean, I think if there was hard science to prove that we were somehow adversely affecting the wildlife, then we would absolutely have to change the way we're doing things," Payne says. "I think there's absolutely no evidence. And, in fact, one of most popular kiting beaches in this part of the world is Revere Beach, and that has one of the most well-doing plover populations on the East Coast."
We tracked down Hoopes, the writer of that 1993 thesis paper, who says a single kiteboarder probably wouldn't harm the birds.
"But the question is, how many kite boarders would cause a problem?" adds Hoopes, who now teaches environmental science and technology at Cape Cod Community College.
Hoopes says that — based on the piping plover behavior he observed when he was a graduate student, like the birds taking off when people flew kites near them — he believes a kiteboarding ban is the right call.
"My bigger concern would be to err on the side of caution as it relates to this," he explains.
The director of the Mass Audubon sanctuary in Wellfleet, wildlife biologist Bob Prescott, says there is anecdotal evidence to back up Hoopes's research.
"Here, we have people that are coming to our facility to look at birds, and all of a sudden the kiteboarders come whipping through, put all the birds up, the birds are gone, and then the kiteboarders go on their way," Prescott says.
And the Fish and Wildlife Service says it isn't required to prove that something is harmful in order to ban it; it simply has to find that any human activities taking place in its refuges are "appropriate and compatible." And the agency has determined that kiteboarding is not.
"I find that stance to be arrogant," says Chatham Selectman Sean Summers.
Summers is on the side of the kiteboarders. He says a ban would be the latest chapter in a long story of government overreach to protect nature at the expense of reasonable beach access and recreation, which fuel the Cape Cod economy. The proposed kiteboarding prohibition, Summers says, is one example of why so many Cape residents put stickers on the cars that say, rebelliously, "Piping Plovers Taste Like Chicken."
"What they're doing through not only just the over-regulation, but the arrogance with which they do it, they are creating a next generation of folks — kids of these beach goers — who are growing up learning to really have a disdain for species protection," Summers says, "because of what's happened to them and what their parents talk about."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points out that kiteboarding is already banned elsewhere, including along the Cape Cod National Seashore, and it says kiteboarders can still go to other Cape beaches to do their sport.
But kiteboarders like van Amson are incredulous that they could be banned from Monomoy while motor boats are allowed there, and they believe there's room for compromise.
"Kiteboarders are people who really want to enjoy their craft, or their sport, in nature, in harmony with nature," van Amson says. "We're not out there hunting and killing animals. We're not polluting. This, I think, is the kind of use that you'd want in a national refuge."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment on the conservation plan through October 10.
This story aired on July 1, 2014.
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