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Endangered Species Bulletin

Habitat Conservation Plan for Sea Turtles

Habitat Conservation Plan for Sea Turtles

Dawn Zattau

Since the turn of the century, the wide, hardpacked beaches of Volusia County, Florida, have been an attraction to tourists. The condition of the beaches was so ideal for vehicular driving that they were once used for automobile racing. The traditional of racing in Daytona Beach gave rise to the construction of the Daytona International Speedway, which continues to attract visitors to Volusia Country every year.

The county has allowed the public to drive on the beaches for as long as anyone can remember, and the driving activity has created several problems for sea turtles. Headlights and movement of vehicles on the beach at night can deter female sea turtles from coming ashore to nest. Collisions at night are another possibility. Also, vehicles on the beach often leave tire tracks in the sand deep enough to prevent hatchlings from taking a direct route to the ocean, thus making them more vulnerable to depredation, desiccation, and exhaustion. Vehicles running over nests may also harm egg development.

The beaches of Volusia County, Florida, are about 52 miles (84 kilometers) long. Between 1988 and 1994, the number of sea turtle nests on Volusia County’s beaches ranged from 1,359 to 2,247 for all species combined. The loggerhead (Caretta caretta) is the sea turtle that most commonly nests there, followed by the green (Chelonia mydas), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii), which was first documented as nesting there in 1996. Most nesting activity takes place at Canaveral National Seashore, on the southern end of the county, and in North Peninsula State Recreation Area, located on the north end of the county. These areas historically have been closed to public vehicular access, largely because of the soft sand there.

Each year, beginning about May 1, adult female sea turtles emerge from the ocean to deposit their eggs, about 100 in each clutch. Each female may lay several clutches per season. After about 60 days, the hatchling sea turtles emerge from the nest (usually at night) and begin their oceanic journey.

In Volusia County, human use of the beach often conflicts with sea turtles. Beachfront construction and accompanying lights have created a situation that interferes with successful sea turtle reproduction. Nesting females tend to avoid laying nests in areas where development is most dense. Even if nesting does occur, hatchling sea turtles, following their instinct to go toward the brightest horizon, either crawl directly toward artificial lights and away from the ocean or wander aimlessly until predators claim them, they dry out, or they die of exhaustion.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the “taking” of listed wildlife as a result of human activity is prohibited unless authorized by permit. Because of the potential for harm to sea turtles from beach driving, the Jacksonville, Florida, office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) contacted officials of Volusia County in June 1992, encouraging them to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and apply for an incidental take permit for sea turtles. Little happened until 1994, when the FWS again contacted county officials to alert them to the potential problem. As a result, the county put interim measures into place until it could prepare an HCP and incidental take permit application.

In June 1995, two local citizens who wanted stronger protection for nesting beaches filed suit against Volusia County in Federal court, alleging that the Endangered Species Act was being violated by continued beach driving and artificial lighting. The court agreed that driving activities were likely to result in unauthorized take, and in August 1995, it issued an injunction that prohibited public beach driving at night and established a 30-foot (9.1-meter) wide Conservation Zone, measured from the toe of the dune or seawall. At the same time, the court also ruled that the sea turtle lighting ordinance already in place within the county did not violate the Endangered Species Act. The judge stated that once the county had obtained approval through the HCP process, the measures established by the injunction could be lifted.

In July 1995, county officials filed a draft HCP with the FWS in an attempt to avoid the injunction; however, the document did not contain enough information to proceed with processing of the application. The county worked with the FWS and the public to write an HCP that would provide positive conservation measures for sea turtles while allowing continued vehicular access to beaches under its jurisdiction. After the HCP and incidental take permit application were finished, the FWS published a notice in the Federal Register to invite public comment. Following revisions in response to the public comments, a permit was issued in November 1996, allowing incidental take of sea turtles resulting from vehicular access to the beaches. At the end of 5 years, the existing permit will expire, and the county will decide whether or not it wants to continue with the plan as is or start over with a new approach.

Prior to the implementation of the HCP, public driving was allowed on 25.7 miles (41.4 km) of the county’s beaches. The implementation of the HCP established zones known as Natural Beach Areas, where public driving activity was removed. These Natural Beach Areas were placed where sea turtle nesting density was highest and corresponded to the least developed areas of the County’s beaches. Collectively, the 18.9 miles (29 kin) of Natural Beach Areas will protect 44 percent of Volusia County’s nests from the impacts of public driving.

Transitional Areas were established along another 11.7 miles (18.8 km) of the beach in areas of medium nesting density. Public vehicular driving and parking are allowed there, except within a 30-foot-wide Conservation Zone.

Urban Areas were established on 5 miles (8.1 km) of the beach where nesting densities were lowest and development was most dense. Public vehicular driving and parking are allowed within these areas, except within a 15-foot (4.5-m) wide Conservation Zone. An estimated 96 to 98 percent of all known nests will fall within Natural Beach Areas or Conservation Zones, and nests located in areas where driving and parking are allowed will be marked for avoidance. In the event data collection shows the conservation zones are not wide enough to provide adequate protection for sea turtles, they will be expanded. Further, as a result of the HCP, no public vehicular access is allowed at night on any portion of the County’s beaches. Finally, the plan required a program to remove tire ruts in the vicinity of known nests where hatchlings are due to emerge.

Because of the public comments received, the county agreed to bring all county-owned or operated lights into compliance with guidelines established by the State of Florida. In addition, the county agreed to develop a beach lighting management plan that will address how best to handle the lighting problems affecting the remainder of the county. Enforcement of an existing lighting ordinance has been increased in an effort to bring privately-owned lights into compliance.

Although some people wanted all cars off the beach and others wanted no interference in beach uses, the final approved HCP allows continued public access to the beach while providing positive conservation measures for sea turtles. Volusia County’s plan will serve as a standard for other Florida counties.

Dawn Zattau is a Fish and Wildlife Biologist in the FWS Jacksonville, Florida, Field Office.

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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