The federal government is alleging that the town of Scarborough ignored repeated warnings about allowing unleashed dogs on town beaches during piping plover nesting season and is now threatening to levy a hefty fine on the town for not preventing a dog from killing a fledgling plover on Pine Point Beach last summer.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in a notice of violation dated Sept. 11, proposes assessing the maximum civil penalty of $12,000 against the town for allowing an unleashed dog to kill a fledgling piping plover on the morning of July 15.

Piping plovers have been protected since 1985 as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The violation notice was received by the town just one week before the Town Council is scheduled to host a public hearing and vote to amend the town’s leash ordinance, a change that, if approved, would ban unleashed dogs from town beaches from April 1 through mid-September.

The current ordinance allows dogs without leashes from sunrise to 9 a.m. from July 1 to Sept. 15.

Dogs are banned from beaches during the day but can be on beaches after 5 p.m., provided they are leashed. The dog attacked and killed the plover on Pine Point Beach around 7 a.m. according to the federal government.

Town Manager Thomas Hall said he plans to meet with the federal agency this week to find out whether enacting a ban on unleashed dogs would satisfy the agency.

“I want to work toward a settlement,” Hall, who is hopeful that the fine can be reduced or withdrawn, said Wednesday night.

Hall acknowledged that the issue of allowing unleashed dogs is a controversial one.

Some dog owners have told the town that the July 15 incident was rare and does not justify a change in regulations.

But the threat of a fine, according to Hall, “is a potential game changer” for the Town Council.

The violation notice, which is signed by Acting Assistant Regional Solicitor Andrew Tittler, alleges that the town of Scarborough received four letters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service between 2001 and 2004 urging town officials to reconsider Scarborough’s leash requirement.

Those letters argued that dogs needed to be leashed during the piping plover nesting season because “There is no way that dogs on voice command can be kept from their instinctive behavior to chase piping plovers.”

“Our decades of experience with dogs and piping plovers is that a voice control policy does not work. Dogs follow their basic instincts and chase piping plovers and other migratory birds,” the violation notice states.

On May 19, 2004, the Town Council approved an amendment to the Animal Control Ordinance which permits dogs to go unleashed on beaches between sunrise and 9 a.m., “as long as a responsible party maintains voice control.”

Tittler states in the notice that the town is responsible for the bird’s death because it did not change its leash ordinance “despite repeatedly being informed that voice control over unleashed dogs would be ineffective in preventing the take of piping plovers.”

He says $12,000 is the statutory maximum for this type of violation. The town has 45 days to respond.

– Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com