Is Padre Island’s Renowned Sea Turtle Program Slipping Away?
They arrive in crowds, sometimes numbering 1,000 or more, rising before the sun to stand behind yellow tape lines, straining their necks and angling for the best possible photo of the newest members of an ancient species. Measuring barely 2 inches across, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings shuffle into the Gulf of Mexico surf. Along the way, females somehow imprint the beach in their memory for a possible return a dozen years later to lay their own eggs.
It has been one of the most popular public events the National Park Service offers, drawing young and old both to marvel at the tiny, armored hatchlings in their seaward shuffle and to gain a crash course in the conservation of a species that has narrowly avoided extinction and remains highly endangered. In 2019, before Covid-19 shuttered the public hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore on the Gulf Coast of Texas, an estimated 16,000 people viewed the releases; last year, online video presentations of the events reached about 1 million.
Yet despite the strong conservation value of these events — not just in public education but in the tens of thousands of hatched turtles released to the ocean — the national seashore’s Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Program itself is endangered. For after the Park Service recruited Dr. Donna Shaver — a sea turtle biologist whose Student Conservation Association intern stint at Padre Island in 1980 launched a career that took her from the Park Service to former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s short-lived National Biological Survey and back to the Park Service at Padre Island in 2003 — to build that sea turtle science program, a role that saw her lift it to international prominence, the agency now appears to be squandering her success and hoping she’ll retire.
Across the National Park System, there occasionally are wildlife programs that catch fire with the public: Yellowstone National Park’s wolf recovery program in Wyoming continues to do just that nearly three decades after it was launched, whale watching off Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts typically is part of a beach vacation there, and bugling elk are celebrated with a festival at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Padre Island’s sea turtle program enjoys similar cachet, drawing nearly 65,000 likes to its Facebook page, annually attracting national media attention when nests of up to 100 eggs are laid and again when they hatch six or seven weeks later, and even gaining promotion in regional summer vacation pitches. It’s the kind of attention that builds public support for the parks, generates charitable donations, and just might spur youngsters to take up science for a career, possibly with the Park Service.
“If they’re watching it [hatchling releases] happen, that’s a powerful visitor experience. And you’re building support for the Park Service, for endangered species protection, not just sea turtles at Padre Island,” said Mike Murray, who during his time as superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore helped craft beach driving regulations there on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with an eye towards protecting nesting sea turtles and shorebirds. “It’s an incredibly powerful program.”
Indeed, the Padre Island program motivated a Boy Scout to collect turtle egg carriers for the program as part of an Eagle Scout project, and Alex Troutman, a Black who in 2019 worked as a biological science technician for Shaver, was motivated by the work to get more Black, Indigenous, or person of color undergraduate students involved in sea turtle work through seeturtles.org.
But last summer the Park Service, in a 51-page report that reviewed the Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Program, or STSR, said the program had gotten unwieldly and too costly at roughly $1.9 million per year. Within 3-5 years, the review added without any detail, the program would be unsustainable. As a result, it should be tightly reined in, the report recommended.
The program, the review implied, suffered from mission creep while the national seashore’s other natural resource programs suffered with an annual $248,670 budget, combined.
That review has raised questions — many the Park Service refuses to answer — about the drivers behind the report and its conclusions, which at times seem contradictory in the narrative. While calling for tighter controls over the STSR program, its operations and budget, the report applauds its successes and value, noting that it has “greatly influenced the success of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle conservation in Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Research conducted at the park has been included in many peer-reviewed publications and former (Padre Island) STSR seasonal staff have become prominent researchers and managers working on marine conservation,” it adds.
The Park Service has prohibited Shaver from discussing the review, and its fallout has led her to file formal accusations with the agency that Padre Island Superintendent Eric Brunnemann has harassed her verbally and left her out of key sea turtle meetings in hopes she’d quit the agency.
For his part, Brunnemann was not made available by the Park Service to respond to these allegations or his vision for the program. But the situation he finds himself in at Padre Island sounds similar to one when he was superintendent at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Brian Kenner, a former Park Service natural resources division chief at Badlands who worked under Brunnemann there, was placed on indefinite administrative leave by Brunneman over what Kenner claims were retaliation for differences over resource management issues, particularly with the park’s bison program and wildland fire safety. After almost two years, and after involvement with the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office, Kenner held onto his job with full pay.
“My experience with Brunnemann is he doesn’t do anything unless he is told to do it from above,” Kenner said during a phone call. “I couldn’t get him to make a simple decision without calling the regional office. I spent two years on administrative leave that Brunnemann put me on. Ostensibly because I was a threat to him and his staff, was what the letter said.”
At Badlands the superintendent had “absolutely no interest” in the successful black-footed ferret recovery program, said Kenner, who saw funding for efforts to bolster numbers of the highly endangered animal continually cut.
“It wasn’t anything illegal,” Kenner said. “It was just he didn’t care about it; he didn’t prioritize it.”
Kenner, who just published a book about his experiences at Badlands [Hard Lessons In a Hard Land: How One National Park Service Employee’s Experience Reflects The State of The Agency And Our Divided Country],sees similarities in what happened at Badlands with reduced funding for the ferret program and what is happening at Padre Island.
“The Park Service recruited her back specifically for this turtle program, put up a big sign out about the Padre Island sea turtle restoration program. She was able to go after all sorts of funding. She effectively got funding and she did a lot of good work, and brought a lot of good press to the park,” he said. “She was doing what she thought was best, and it was expensive. There was a lot of overtime, but I think there are just a lot of problems within the turtle world of her spending so much money on this.”
The review findings at Padre Island, said Kenner, seemed “slanted” and “it was very suspicious.”
“At that time, Brunnemann was brought to the park, and he immediately started crimping her,” he said. “So, I think it goes to this review. My experience with government reviews, they’re predetermined. They’re basically, ‘OK, we want to find fault with this program and pull money out of it, so let’s do a review and come up with that. And then OK, now we got that, now we’ll bring a superintendent in here to get it done.'”
Kenner said Brunnemann when he was at Badlands told him to “‘stop talking about bison because I’ve been told if you don’t it’s my head.’ Shortly thereafter I went on admin leave.”
At Padre Island, Brunnemann was named acting superintendent in October 2019 and got the permanent job in March 2020. He soon diverted about $300,000 Shaver’s program received through competitive Park Service grants and supposedly used it elsewhere in the park.
Commitment To Endangered And Threatened Species
A cloud has been dropped over the highly praised and prominent program Shaver has nurtured the past 28 years, but it also has raised questions about the Park Service’s commitment to not only the most endangered sea turtle species in the world’s oceans but to other turtle species found on the Endangered Species List that rely on the seashore’s beaches and waters.
Does the Park Service in the Intermountain Region have a point about the growth of the Padre Island turtle program? It involves only about 1 percent of the world’s Kemp’s ridley nesting grounds, and the budget is nearly one-quarter of the entire seashore operations budget and dwarfs the budget for Padre Island’s Science and Resources Management division, where programs go wanting for funds.
“The park has many important and internationally significant natural and cultural resources that are not being monitored, studied, or managed. For example, the park provides habitat for more than 300 bird species, it contains 16th century Spanish shipwrecks, and there are thousands of acres of prairie, dune habitat, and freshwater marshes,” the review noted, implying that the STRS itself and not the NPS budgeting process has deprived those programs. “The Laguna Madre within (Padre Island) is considered one of only about 6 hyper-saline lagoons in the world, where close to 80 percent of all redhead ducks winter in the U.S., about 80 percent of all seagrass beds occur in the entire state of Texas, and where federally- and state-listed migratory bird species find important habitat.”
Nonetheless, the picture that emerges from the review questions how committed the Park Service is, at Padre Island at least, to conserving threatened and endangered species. While the report notes the high profile and many successes of the program, it also notes that many of its operations (such as removing eggs from nests to incubate them) are not supported by recovery plans, biological opinions, or even Park Service policies pertaining to allowing natural processes to proceed.
Indeed, “(T)he review found no programmatic (biological opinion) exists for the park’s sea turtle program,” the review stated.
Padre Island, Turtle Central
Though the diminutive Kemp’s ridley turtles call the entire Gulf of Mexico home, Padre Island dominates their nesting in U.S. waters, “making it the most important nesting beach in the United States for this endangered species,” the Park Service’s review of Shaver’s program stated.
Indeed, in the 1980s the national seashore was specifically chosen by international experts to develop a satellite nesting population of Kemp’s ridley turtles that could both contribute to global recovery and serve as a backup population in case a disaster hit the Mexican populations, which are largely centered around Playa de Rancho Nuevo at Tamaulipas. Too, the Padre Island work was seen as a way to develop protocols for a captive breeding program, if ever needed.
As the Deepwater Horizon incident demonstrated, having one population center for Kemp’s ridleys is risky.
“Because the Kemp’s ridley has one primary nesting beach, this species is particularly susceptible to habitat destruction by natural (e.g., hurricanes) and human caused events,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted in 2015 in its 5-year status review of the species. “Human caused threats include the potential for oil spills, especially in the Gulf of Mexico since it is an area of high-density offshore oil exploration and extraction. British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in 2010, and the short and long-term impacts to sea turtles as a result of habitat impacts, prey loss, and subsurface oil components broken down through physical, chemical, and biological processes are unknown. However, observations of oil and other pollutants have been found within major foraging 25 grounds for Kemp’s ridleys.”
Padre Island also is the only area in Texas where all five threatened and endangered species of sea turtles — Kemp’s ridley, Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, and Hawksbill — nest or rely on habitat in the seashore. And yet, the Park Service review said the Padre Island staff should ignore all but Kemp’s ridley turtles with its work. That appears to run counter to the agreement the Park Service signed with Shaver in 2003 when it recruited her to run the program. Under it, Shaver was given authority to “supervise all sea turtle work,” not just that focused on Kemp’s ridley turtles.
“The STRM Division would work exclusively on sea turtles (sic) projects and publications, full-time, year-round,” it added. “Projects and programs would include all sea turtle monitoring, research, management, conservation, restoration, protection, and technical assistance-type of duties associated with sea turtle projects at Padre Island. This integrated program would also include an extensive public education component, state and federal agency partnership component, media contact component, and an outreach component.
“Dr. Shaver would be responsible for all STRM Division budgetary, personnel, and administration functions.”
Last year’s review amounts to shredding of that agreement, as it:
- Gives the park superintendent budgetary and personnel oversight;
- Restricts Shaver’s division to working within the national seashore’s boundaries, even though she has served as Texas’ coordinator for Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, a role that came into prominent play in February with a mass cold-stunning event of sea turtles along the Gulf Coast;
- Prohibits the division from working to help Green and Loggerhead sea turtles, two threatened species that also nest at Padre Island;
- Suggests a reduction in its Kemp’s ridley turtle egg incubation program, and;
- Reduces the number of public events around the release of hatchlings.
The report went further, directing that grant funds for species other than Kemp’s ridley turtles should not be pursued, saying the STSR program should prepare for a 30 percent reduction in funding, and directing that annual overtime pay, which reached $201,232 in Fiscal 2019, should be held to no more than $16,500.
The Park Service review gave cover for Brunnemann’s diversion of roughly $300,000 for Green sea turtle research, noting that, “(I)n addition to all Kemp’s ridley nests, the park protects, collects, and incubates eggs from all Green and Loggerhead sea turtles. Green and Loggerhead sea turtle eggs collected at Padre Island, and those collected elsewhere along the Texas coast and sent to the park, are incubated at the park and the hatchlings are released on park beaches. There seems to be no conservation reason to maintain this practice, and no EA [environmental assessment], BO [biological opinion], or other directive exists to support this management action.”
But that section doesn’t entirely jibe with the position espoused by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Padre Island National Seashore is important to sea turtles simply because it’s a remote, undeveloped barrier island,” Mary Skoruppa, the USFWS’s Sea Turtle Coordinator for the Texas Coast, told the Traveler during a call. “It’s important to sea turtles just because of its proximity and because of the federally protected land, a lot of federal protected beach which is important sea turtle habitat for nesting. Of course, the turtles that strand and are injured and wash up on the beach need to be rescued. It doesn’t matter what species, it’s important to all of them.”
Brunnemann’s position that Shaver’s program has no “NPS biological or environmental justification” to be working with Green or Loggerhead turtles also seems to conflict with the position of the FWS because of their status as threatened species.