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Beachgoers in Massachusetts could gain a little more space to picnic, walk their dogs and play Frisbee under a statewide conservation plan aimed at protecting the piping plover.
A new plan announced Friday allows towns to request relaxation of limits on beach activities that have been put in place to protect the endangered shorebirds and allow them to safely raise their chicks.
Though not welcome by all beach communities, the measures have had a dramatic impact on the shorebird's numbers in the state. They have gone from 140 pairs in 1986, when the Atlantic Coast piping plover was listed under the Endangered Species Act, to more than 680 pairs in 2015.
The increasing numbers helped shape the new 26-year plan that was drawn up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
"This promotes the long-term conservation for the shorebird while increasing the flexibility of recreational management of beaches with nesting plovers," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Assistant Regional Director Paul Phifer said.
The plan opens the door for requests to eliminate some fencing, move nests that are in parking lots and to access some roads and allow vehicles that have been banned near some nesting areas to return on some beaches. Vehicles still would have to be escorted and towns would have to employ a monitor to watch the shorebirds as the vehicle passes. They also would have to smooth over ruts left behind by the vehicles that have in the past trapped plover chicks or put barriers between their nest and the sea.
So far, three towns - Orleans, Plymouth, and Barnstable - have submitted requests.
The plan allows for the loss of up to 44 plovers each year based on the latest census estimates. Those number are likely to fluctuate from year to year, from a high of 7 percent of the population to as low as 1 percent of the population.
If the numbers of pairs drops below 500, that would put the relaxed measured on hold.
Across the Northeast, the piping plover population is estimated at 1,870 pairs, which is more than double what the numbers were in 1986, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The biggest increase has been in New England, where the numbers have gone from 184 in 1986 to 918 in 2015 including increases in Maine and New Hampshire.
Phifer said there is talk of introducing similar conservation plans in other plover states, although none are forthcoming.
"This kind of large-scale, long-term planning is going to become a regional model and Massachusetts is leading the way," he said.
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