Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

On the southwest coast of Washington State, a pristine estuary bears witness to a time before people settled the Pacific Northwest. The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge contains more than 15,000 acres of tidelands, temperate rainforest and ocean beaches, as well as rare remnants of an old growth coastal cedar forest.


But this important sanctuary is under attack by advancing urban development and the spread of non-native beachgrass. Caught in this path is a small, rare shorebird called the Western snowy plover. The snowy plover is on Washington State's endangered list and is considered threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Today, fewer than 2,000 Western snowy plovers survive along the coast due to urban development, an increased number of predators and the spread of invasive weeds such as American and European beachgrass.


Plovers feed and nest on the beach just above high-tide lines, where human activity is the greatest. Unless this area is protected from people, plover nesting ground and habitat is easily destroyed. Now, a group of wildlife experts at the refuge are working to re-establish native habitat and ensure that the snowy plover wins the fight against human intrusion.


A small, shy bird


The snowy plover has lived on the West Coast for centuries, but is seldom seen by beach goers. That's because it stands a mere 4 inches tall and tends to rest in small recesses in the sand, where it's camouflaged by its white, gray and black markings.


With only four known nesting areas left in Washington, wildlife biologist Kirsten Brennan and her team at the refuge have developed a program to restore native habitat and stop the spread of non-native beachgrass.


“American and European beachgrass have crowded out important native vegetation,” Brennan said. “This also causes native birds and animals to dwindle.”


The spreading beachgrasses had created high foredunes along the coast, reducing the open sand and sparsely vegetated habitat that the plover prefer. As the beachgrass traps the sand, it spreads by rhizomes, slowly developing a dense wall of vegetation.


Brennan and her crew developed a vegetation management plan to eliminate these grassy barriers. While the plovers are away in winter, Brennan's team bulldozes the dunes, scraping off the top layer of infested shoreline. Leveling the terrain also makes the going easier for other equipment.


But the grasses' extensive root systems defy mere bulldozing. So Brennan's team used Habitat™ herbicide in their vegetation management program. In the fall – after the birds have finished nesting and taken wing – the team uses a tractor mounted boom spray system to spray the re-sprouted beachgrass with 6 pints per acre of Habitat.


Securing Partnerships


When the restoration project started, Brennen and her team found that the plovers nested among a patch of oyster shells. The shells, mimicking naturally occurring shell debris, hide the small nests, providing defense against hungry ravens and crows.


That gave the team an idea: create more habitat by importing oyster shells. With plans for 100 acres to ultimately be restored, the shells are now brought in by dump trucks. Taylor Resources, a local oyster company, initially donated shells to the project in 2002 and 2003. The company has continued to support the project, supplying shells at a reduced cost. Company workers walk behind the trucks, using rakes to spread the shells evenly along the beach.


Phenomenal Results

Brennan said the program, which started as a small pilot project in 2002, has been phenomenal.

“It seemed improbable that the plovers would find that one acre we cleared the first year,” Brennan said. But a pair of snowy plovers quickly began nesting in an oyster shell patch in the cleared area. Since then, approximately 100 acres have been restored.

Another unexpected side benefit has been the return of a rare, native coastal dune plant. Two small, pink sand verbenas, with clusters of pink blooms were found in the restoration area, though the plant was considered extinct in Washington State.

“These plants were able to re-establish themselves out of a long-lived seed bank that was trapped under the invasive beachgrass,” said Brennan. “Before this sighting, this plant had not been recorded in the state since 1950.”


Another endangered bird species, the streaked horned lark, has also nested in the restored area.

“The snowy plover still faces a tough fight for survival along the West Coast,” Brennan said. “But with this program, we are trying to ensure they always have a home in the Willapa wildlife refuge.”

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