Trespassing and other disturbances down at Haystack Rock

A nesting seabird can be seen through a scope used by the Haystack Rock Awareness Program to monitor the population of puffins and other species.

Keeping people from climbing Haystack Rock can be a challenge.

But thanks to an increase in staffing and education, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program has seen a decrease in trespassing and other disturbances to wildlife, program director Melissa Keyser said.

“We’ve really tried to make a transition from enforcement to education,” she said. “I would say 90 percent of visitors aren’t aware of the regulations that protect this area.”

For 32 years, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program has been a city-funded group which promotes stewardship of the environment and prevents ecosystem degradation through outreach and education.

A team of about 15 interpreters work as educators and enforcers on the beach to help preserve Oregon’s most-Instagrammed landmark.

Haystack Rock was incorporated as a national wildlife refuge in 1968 and became a marine garden refuge in 1991. The refuge includes everything above the high tide line and goes all the way up to 500 feet above the rock, and anything past that point can’t be climbed on or walked on, Keyser said.

Multiple signs are posted informing visitors to keep out of sensitive areas that are home to a variety of nesting seabirds, sea stars, anemones and other wildlife.

Despite the warnings, Keyser said once a week interpreters will find people attempting to climb the rock or snag animals from the tidepools. But compared with the 98,000 contacts her interpreters have made in the past nine months, Keyser said it’s an improvement from when she started as director four years ago.

Expanding the work on the beach from four months to nine months and doubling the number of interpreters on staff play a large role in this decline, Keyser said.

“There used to be a lot more disturbances that required police resources at the rock,” Keyser said. “In the past, interpreters were more like enforcers, and we got negative feedback. You don’t have a good opportunity to educate with that approach because they are already embarrassed.”

Interpreter Briana Ortega has been working for the awareness program since April, and said many of the violations she sees are people not understanding they are walking through tidepools.

“We’re out here to help,” she said. “The people who ask questions about what they are doing wrong instead of getting mad are usually happier in the long run.”

Some of their work has resulted in small, environmental victories. This year was the first in many where the black oystercatcher seabird successfully gave birth to three chicks in an intertidal zone, Keyser said — an area that often is disturbed by human interference.

Cannon Beach Police Chief Jason Schermerhorn said he has also noticed a general decline in the number of trespassing calls his officers receive about Haystack Rock. He said officers are only getting about four calls a year to intervene instead of multiple calls in just the summer like in previous years.

“When we do go down it is usually an educational opportunity,” Schermerhorn said. “Having the interpreters down there has been a great help.”

Rarely do his officers have to issue trespassing citations, he said, but if they do a violator could face a $500 fine with the city. Most violations of the wildlife laws and regulations are class A misdemeanors.

While disturbances from people seem to be on the decline, awareness program interpreters are facing a new kind of trespasser: drones.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, operating drones on refuges like Haystack Rock is illegal without special permits. But Keyser said her interpreters have talked with more than 100 drone operators just this year, and each one said they weren’t aware it was illegal.

“Flying drones is causing these birds to flush, leaving their eggs behind,” Keyser said. “It’s disrupting our seabird populations. Birds don’t know how to react to this new predator.”

Keyser said there isn’t specific research on how drones are affecting seabird populations, but said the problem has grown exponentially in the past three years.

The team is still looking for creative ways to address the problem, considering that drone operators can fly their apparatus from hundreds of feet away from the refuge, but will continue to educate those who are in view.

“We think having an educator diffuse the situation has been helpful,” she said. “Usually when we tell people these rules are to protect the safety of the animals they may not see or know about and their own safety, they listen.”

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