Fences that have barred beachgoers from prime spots along the Atlantic surf may come down this summer as the federal government prepares to relax restrictions designed to protect the piping plover in Massachusetts.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service this week released a draft plan — the first of its kind along the East Coast — that would allow state and local beach officials far more flexibility in managing the increasing number of the sand-colored birds that have taken up residence on shores along Massachusetts, often throughout the summer.
The plovers, which were deemed threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1986, have riled many beachgoers, as officials in recent years fenced off increasingly large swaths of beaches from Cape Ann to Cape Cod to protect the tiny birds.
The draft plan, likely to be approved this summer, would grant the state a 25-year permit to allow beach managers to open roads and parking lots where some birds may roost, authorize off-road vehicles to be escorted past nests, and, in rare cases, let officials move nests from sensitive areas.
"This effort is vital to plover conservation," said Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "As plover numbers increase, tensions can rise as beachgoers [and] residents seek to share the beach with the plover and other shorebirds. We are planning ahead to find a solution that works for people and plovers."
When federal officials designated the region's plovers as threatened 30 years ago, there were just 139 breeding pairs in Massachusetts. Since then, after spending $150,000 a year to help avert the extinction of the birds, the state has seen a resurgence of plovers, with an estimated 689 pairs nesting last year.
Over the years, federal, state, and local officials have required fencing around nests, leashes for dogs, and warning signs to alert people of their presence, among other protections. The plovers now exceed their federal goal of 625 pairs in Massachusetts.
"We are hopeful and optimistic that this plan will allow us more flexibility at beaches across the state this summer," said Jon Regosin, chief of conservation science at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
If federal officials approve the plan, beach managers would have to seek Regosin's permission before allowing vehicles on beaches or other activity that is now prohibited to protect the plovers.
"This can help reduce tensions," Regosin said. "It allows for much more of a cooperative approach."
While plovers have rebounded in Massachusetts, they continue to struggle to survive along much of the Atlantic coast, where there is often limited protection from predators, such as gulls and skunks. They also struggle to raise chicks on beaches subject to erosion; narrower shores mean less sand for camouflage and more eggs washed out to sea.
From North Carolina to Eastern Canada, there were an estimated 1,866 plover pairs in 2015 — down about 1 percent from their high in 2007 and well below federal goals for the region. The Fish and Wildlife Service won't consider removing the birds from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act until they maintain a population of 2,000 pairs for more than five years along the East Coast, among other signs of revival.
Environmental groups that have worked with state officials to protect plovers in Massachusetts say they expect that easing the restrictions under the proposed habitat conservation plan would ultimately reduce stress on the birds.
The plan, they added, would also direct more federal money toward protecting the plovers from predators, noting that the state's main effort now is going toward increasing the number of chicks that survive after they're born.
In recent years, fewer chicks have lived long enough for their parents to teach them to fly and survive on their own, said Katharine C. Parsons, director of Mass Audubon's coastal waterbird program. For the plover population to remain sustainable, about 1.24 chicks per brood should survive; today, an average of fewer than one of the chicks survives in Massachusetts.
Plovers usually lay four eggs.
"We still need to do more to improve their productivity," she said. "But we're optimistic about this plan. We see it is a win-win — for the birds and the people."
As the number of plovers has increased on crowded shores such as Revere Beach, where at least 16 plover pairs took up residence last summer, officials have sought to reduce the anger of beachgoers, many of whom have complained about fencing that covered 15 percent of the beach at high tide.
They have made the enclosures less obtrusive, using fiberglass rods and blue signs, which they say blend in better. They have also sought to educate the public, rather than threaten them with fines for disturbing the nests.
In Orleans, after years of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in fees for stickers to drive on town beaches, local officials independently sought and obtained a federal waiver last year to allow a limited number of vehicles back on the beach.
There were strict rules about when and where the vehicles could go, how fast they could travel, and how they would be monitored and escorted.
"It did a lot to tamp down tensions," said John Hodgson, a town selectman and chairman of the Orleans Parks Commission.
He said the town's experience provides a model for what other communities could do under the proposed federal plan. "This would be a huge win for the state," he said.
For Russ Hopping, who oversees about 27 miles of beaches from Ipswich to Nantucket for the Trustees of Reservations, a federal waiver would mean more than getting rid of some fences on their beaches. It would mean fewer headaches.
With some 60 plover pairs on their beaches last summer, Hopping hopes new flexibility would translate into fewer complaints and greater protection for the birds.
"That we've reached the point that this opportunity even exists represents a conservation success story for Massachusetts," he said.