SCARBOROUGH — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating whether the town of Scarborough bears any responsibility for an incident in which a dog killed a federally protected piping plover chick on Pine Point Beach last month.
“An investigation has been opened,” Town Manager Tom Hall said Thursday, and the town is cooperating fully with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the Fish and Wildlife agent working on the case had indicated that once the initial investigation is concluded, it will be forwarded to the service’s Office of the Solicitor for review and either resolution or legal action that potentially could carry either civil or criminal penalties.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Hall said the town will also consider strengthening its animal control and piping plover ordinances during the next few weeks.
At a meeting of the town’s ordinance committee Tuesday, all three members said they were not pleased with the current ordinances, Hall said.
“They were clear that something had to be done, that some changes had to be made,” he said.
The piping plover is listed as an endangered species in Maine, and as a “threatened” species by the federal government. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has recorded an estimated 47 pairs in the entire state, said Sgt. Tim Spahr. Maine Audubon puts the number at 44.
The bird’s death has sparked public discussion locally about dogs on Scarborough beaches during the plover nesting period, from April through September, Hall said. Some other Maine communities, including Ogunquit, bar dogs from beaches during that especially vulnerable period in the birds’ lives, according to information provided by the Maine Audubon Society.
Hall said he is urging the town’s ordinance committee to develop a recommendation on the ordinances at its Aug. 8 meeting, so that a proposal can be brought to the full seven-member Town Council on Aug. 21.
A prompt “pre-emptive” response will demonstrate to both residents and federal officials that the town is taking the incident seriously and wants to establish an appropriate response, Hall said.
A turnout of about 35 residents — about a dozen of whom spoke on the incident and in support of allowing dogs on the beach — at this week’s ordinance committee meeting demonstrated that the issue is likely to be controversial in Scarborough, Hall said. Whether to permit dogs on the beach, when and under what conditions probably will be part of the debate.
“A lot of folks will have interest in this matter,” Hall said.
The lone piping plover chick was mauled by a dog. However, after talking to witnesses and the dog owner, the town determined that it would not take action against the owner.
“There was no violation of our local ordinance,” Hall said.
Spahr said state and federal efforts to protect the plover have been effective, and numbers of the birds have steadily increased. However, every state has an obligation to protect endangered species, said Spahr, and the town could be found liable.
The piping plover chick that was killed was hatched from one of four eggs, said Laura Minich Zitske, a wildlife ecologist at Maine Audubon Society. The other three did not hatch, and the lone chick had fledged and was moving around on the beach.
“Everywhere they nest is an important site,” Zitske said. “Each one is essential to the success of a population.”
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