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While most normal folks think St. Patty’s Day or even Easter when March rolls around, officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base think — it’s snowy plover time!

Portions of three local beaches in the Lompoc Valley have been partially cordoned as off-limits to us humans, just as they are on March 1 of every recent year. It’s the Air Force’s way of attempting to protect the Western snowy plover.

This version of the plover species is cute as the dickens, but also just as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The annual closures are meant to protect the birds, as well as their nesting habitat.

The Air Force really has no options in this matter, although the military too often gets the blame for shutting down parts of very popular local beaches. And it can get worse for beach goers. The Air Force sets a number of allowable restricted-area transgressions, and if humans go beyond those limits, the beaches are closed, period.

If said violations go beyond 50 disturbances for Surf Beach, 10 for Wall Beach or 10 for Minuteman Beach, that beach will be closed entirely for the remainder of the nesting season, which lasts through the summer and into the fall. Sadly, the total closures have become almost a sure thing.

And stepping into the plover’s restricted area can mean more to the violator than losing access to the beach for a few months. Violators of those restrictions can be fined up to $5,000. It’s a federal offense. If the incursion is deemed malicious, violations such as crushing eggs or chicks can lead to a fines of $50,000 in federal court, and a year in a federal prison.

You’d think those daunting penalties would keep people out of the restricted areas. Not so much. The beaches usually reach full closure sometime in late spring or early summer.

Just so you’ll be forewarned, the Western snowy plover is a tiny shore bird, about the size and weight of a house sparrow. From roughly March through September, they breed and make their nests on beaches, bays, rivers and estuaries. That’s where Ocean and Surf beaches factor in, being the estuary of the Santa Ynez River.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for — nesting birds will take cover in just about any available crevice, including a human footprint, which makes them very difficult to see. That also makes them vulnerable at a time in the breeding/nesting cycle that can prove fatal.

Another issue for the nesting plover is that just about every local predator you can name will be on the hunt for the tiny birds. Their main nemeses at the beaches are coyotes, raptors and sadly, humans.

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All of which points to the need for everyone to be aware of the plover’s needs, and respect the space these threatened creatures need to keep their species from going extinct.

The Western snowy plover has been on the federal Endangered Species Act list as “threatened” for many years, and every state along the West Coast has restrictions regarding treatment of the birds from March to September.

Protecting the plover — any species, really — is vitally important to both the animal and the human kingdoms. Because once a species goes extinct, it’s gone forever, and the planet has lost something irreplaceable. And we can never be entirely certain what the loss of a species will mean in the overall scheme of things.

That’s something to think about between now and the start of the summer beach season. If we try, we can all get along.

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