FALMOUTH – The town of Scarborough is considering a proposal to tighten leash laws on Scarborough beaches in the wake of the death of a piping plover by an off-leash dog at Pine Point Beach.
Maine Audubon supports the work that the Scarborough Town Council is doing to address this issue seriously and consider input from all parties. To best protect our endangered wildlife, we urge the council to ban dog access on Scarborough beaches from April 1 through Sept. 30.
Piping plovers are endangered in Maine, with only 44 nesting pairs this year. Plovers need very specific habitat to nest and raise their chicks. Plovers nest on the beach and can travel up to 1½ miles to search for food.
All large sandy beaches in southern Maine are potential nesting sites for plovers, as they nest at different beaches in different years. Historically, Maine had more than 30 miles of suitable nesting beaches. Today, because of encroaching development, the available shoreline habitat for nesting plovers has been reduced by 75 percent.
While we have not documented a plover killed by a dog on Scarborough beaches for many years (prior to this summer’s incident), field evidence indicates that it may happen more frequently.
Additionally, plovers see dogs as a fox, coyote or other predator.
The presence of dogs on the beach can stress birds and cause nest failures, which puts the plover population further at risk. Dogs are one of the threats to plovers and other beach birds that we can and should control.
Maine Audubon has a dedicated team of staff and volunteers on southern Maine beaches from March through August. After the plovers choose a nesting area, we work diligently to put up signs, speak with residents and educate the public about plovers.
In Scarborough, we work with the Higgins Beach Association, whose team of volunteers walks the beach daily to talk with beachgoers.
While signs and community outreach are very important, it is not enough. Every summer, we see dog tracks in and near plover nesting areas, frequently directly next to posted signs.
This year, our biologists documented dog tracks inside plover fencing at Pine Point Beach on a weekly basis, a rare occurrence on other Maine beaches.
Scarborough currently has one of the least restrictive pet control ordinances in the state. Nearly all towns and cities in Maine have leash laws, and some do not permit dogs at all on beaches in the summer.
This lax ordinance likely contributes to the fact that the number of chicks per pair of plovers in Scarborough is lower than the state average. Despite active monitoring, management and a plover ordinance, birds are facing more challenges in Scarborough than elsewhere in Maine.
Piping plovers are not the only endangered species that rely on Scarborough’s beaches. The state endangered least tern nests on Scarborough beaches and the federally endangered roseate tern roosts on the town’s beaches (roosting is critical for birds; they need to rest to save energy for migration and feeding forays).
Red knots, which use Scarborough beaches to forage and roost, are about to be listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Endangered wildlife species that need beach habitat increasingly have fewer places to call home.
We know that enjoying the beach is part of our quality of life in Maine.
Scarborough residents can enjoy the beauty of their beaches and time outdoors with off-leash pets during fall and winter and use other recreational areas to walk dogs during the nesting season.
The respectful use of our beaches is ultimately an issue about quality of life versus life itself — plovers and other endangered birds have nowhere else to go. The survival of these entire species is on the line.
A no-dog policy during breeding and migration season is best for wildlife. That’s why we have adopted a similar policy at all our Audubon sanctuaries.
Eliminating the voice-control ordinance and requiring leashes is a step in the right direction, but can be difficult to enforce. We encourage all southern Maine beach towns to carefully review their dog ordinances and implement rules that allow people, pets and wildlife to successfully coexist.
Ted Koffman is executive director of Maine Audubon, based in Falmouth.