The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on June 18 officially designated 24,527 acres in three states for the Pacific Coast population of western snowy plovers.
The designation settles a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a national nonprofit conservation organization. Critical habitat that scientists say is necessary for the birds' survival was illegally eliminated by the Bush administration in 2005, the center claimed.
The shy plovers, which weigh less than two ounces and live just three years, lost about half their habitat after the Bush administration slashed it to 12,145 acres, according to the center.
The coastal population was declared a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1993 after it had dropped to 1,500 birds. The plovers no longer breed at nearly two-thirds of their former nesting sites. Endangered Species Act protection first granted 19,474 acres of critical habitat in 1999, which allowed the population to increase to more than 3,600 adults by 2010, according to the center.
The tiny birds can be seen along the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific coast dining on worms, insects and crustaceans in wet sand and in kelp that has washed ashore. The birds breed primarily on beaches in California, southern Washington, Oregon and Baja California, and are seen running rapidly in little groups together at the water's edge.
Plovers face many threats, including widespread and frequent disturbance of nesting sites by humans, vehicles and off-leash dogs; crushing by off-road vehicles; global climate change; pesticide use and habitat loss, the center noted.
The Fish and Wildlife designation reinstates the habitat that was withdrawn in 2005 and that government scientists identified as essential. The local, 89-acre area consists of the southwestern portion of a salt pond located east of East Palo Alto. The site abuts Willow Road and is near Bayfront Expressway.
The area is owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and is near the western approach to the Dumbarton Bridge, said Rudy Jurgensen, public affairs manager for Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. The district owns the adjacent 376-acre Ravenswood Open Space Preserve.
The site has undergone renovations through the 2010 South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. Habitat enhancement includes ponds, islands and saltpan for several species of shorebirds, including the plovers.
In 2009 the salt pond area supported 23 western snowy plover nests, 17 of which hatched young, according to a June 19 Department of the Interior/Fish and Wildlife document published in the Federal Register.
Other local protected areas will include three portions of Eden Landing south of Highway 92 and the San Mateo Bridge in the East Bay. Coastal areas will include a stretch of coastline in Half Moon Bay between Young and Kelly avenues and coastal areas in Santa Cruz County, according to the Fish and Wildlife document.
"Protecting critical habitat will help this lovely shorebird continue on the path to recovery," said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the center. "Species with federally protected habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it, so this puts a big safety net between plovers and extinction."