It’s late morning on a beach in Kennebunkport, and one of the most treasured and maligned visitors on the sandscape is easy to miss, even when a biologist points to the motionless bird several dozen yards away.

They are white and sandy-colored fuzz balls on tiny stilts, perfectly camouflaged against the surrounding dunes. And depending on a person’s perspective, piping plovers are either the cutest bundle of feathers or the biggest bully on the beach, affecting the lives of thousands of people all along the East Coast.

The tiny piping plover – just 2 ounces full grown – is the focus of both intensive wildlife protection efforts and intense resentment by those who want unrestricted access to the same sandy beaches that are key to the future of the species. Almost anywhere these rare birds pop up – from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Old Orchard Beach – plovers spark a debate about what some beach users regard as oversized restrictions for such a small critter.

Standing on Goose Rocks Beach, Maine Audubon’s Laura Minich Zitske said the reality is plovers are a federally protected species that require special treatment not only by law but also for their survival.

“These birds have nowhere else to go,” said Zitske, a biologist and director of Maine Audubon’s piping plover and least tern project. “They are beach specialists and they need the beach to survive.”

Much of the plover monitoring in Maine is carried out by volunteers through coordination with Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. But federal agencies spend millions of dollars every year managing the nearly 2,000 nesting pairs of plovers on the Atlantic coast.

In Maine, the threat posed by unleashed dogs has been the biggest public flash point over plovers – as seen in Scarborough for months. Yet federal agencies are concerned about more than pets, even killing foxes, gulls and other potential predators on Maine beaches in recent years through a little-publicized predator-control program.

Dog leash rules and predator controls are part of an all-of-the-above approach to protecting a bird decimated first by Americans’ taste for feathery caps and then their post-World War II love affair with the beach.

“This is a really vulnerable species and it faces multiple threats,” said Anne Hecht, an endangered species biologist and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s piping plover recovery coordinator for the Northeast. “You have to do everything right at the same time, so it really does require a lot of organization and a lot of cooperation with the public. Most of the beaches where piping plovers (breed), with a few exceptions, are still seeing fairly heavy use.”

BOTH SIDES PASSIONATE

Plover habitat in southern Maine certainly sees heavy use and, on occasion, heated controversy. Just ask residents of Scarborough.

Ever since an unleashed dog killed a plover chick on Pine Point Beach last July, Scarborough has been a town divided among plover defenders, dog owners fighting to preserve beach access, and town officials facing sanctions from federal officials because of weak plover-protection policies.

“I continue to marvel at the level of passion that surrounds this issue,” said Scarborough Town Manager Thomas Hall, who ranks plovers as the most contentious issue in his years of public service. “Even with education and school issues, I don’t see this level of passion consistently.”

But that’s not true in all Maine beach communities, which played host last year to a total of 44 breeding pairs of the birds listed as a “threatened” species by the federal government and as “endangered” in Maine.

Wells, for example, has a loyal cadre of several dozen volunteers who monitor the birds, maintain protective fencing and help educate beach-goers about do’s and don’ts near plover nests.

“They are doing amazing work, but that’s not to say they don’t have conflicts,” said Zitske, who works closely with communities and biologists at state and federal agencies. “They have the same struggles as every town does. But they communicate and cooperate. They are an example of where conflict has been resolved.”

Of course, Maine is far from the only state with a love-hate relationship with the little birds.

In North Carolina, plover defenders claim they have been harassed and threatened by off-road vehicle enthusiasts who have been told they must stay away from their favorite recreating spots to avoid disturbing or running over the birds. The Outer Banks Preservation Association, which represents off-road vehicle owners and other beach users, meanwhile, counters that the government and environmentalists have gone too far.

“National parks should also be enjoyed by people, not just the animals,” the group says on its website. “Let common sense prevail.” Another bumper sticker says, “HEY! AUDUBON – IDENTIFY THIS BIRD!” and depicts a middle finger emerging from the body of a bird.

Massachusetts, which consistently has the largest breeding population of plovers, with 656 pairs in 2011, has had its share of battles over off-road vehicles on plover beaches, especially on Cape Cod. A kite-boarding group resignedly advises members to listen to and cooperate with all of the various groups involved in plover protection.

“As frustrating as all of this is, it is in our best interest to help these little birds do their thing so that we can get our beach access back as soon as possible,” reads the piping plover page on the MASSkiting.com website.

Hecht of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said “there is no doubt plovers draw controversy.”

“We appreciate the fact that (management) impinges on people’s lives for part of the year,” Hecht said. “But we are always doing everything we can to minimize those impacts and we really try to reach for as much accommodation as we can without endangering the birds. But it really takes everybody pitching in.”

HABITAT ATTRACTS PLOVERS, HUMANS

The piping plover may be the East Coast’s version of the spotted owl that caused so much strife in the Pacific Northwest, but with a key difference: The plover affects many more people.

The roughly 2,000 piping plover pairs on the Atlantic Coast breed on beaches from North Carolina to Newfoundland. It just so happens that some of the sandy beaches that offer prime plover habitat are popular with humans for the same reasons.

Maine was home to 44 breeding piping plover pairs last year that produced 85 fledglings, up from 42 pairs in 2012 that produced 64 fledglings. But in 2007 there were only about a dozen breeding pairs after there had been 66 just five years earlier.

Plovers only began to lay eggs in recent weeks, so this year’s count is still unknown.

Piping plovers resemble common sandpipers – only smaller and cuter, even by objective standards.

Just 6 inches tall and weighing a whopping 2 ounces fully grown, piping plovers can often be spotted skittering at the ocean’s edge or on mudflats searching for worms, bugs and other invertebrates. When they aren’t foraging, plovers can be found nesting in the transition area between dunes and the sandy beach.

The birds were common on the East Coast until their fluffy plumage became fashionable on women’s hats, and hunting drove them to near-extinction in the early 1900s. Their numbers improved for several decades until Americans’ desire to live and recreate on the beach began wiping out their habitat and disturbing their breeding habits.

The coast of Maine once offered more than 30 miles of suitable habitat for plover breeding, enough to support more than 200 pairs; today, that number is less than 10 miles, according to federal estimates.

Females typically lay four eggs in “nests” that, to the untrained eye, look like mere depressions in the sand between the high tide line and the dunes.

“It doesn’t look like much. Part of how I know (a nest) is I can see the prints,” Zitske said as she pointed to the tiny, three-toed prints surrounding the depression in the sand on Goose Rocks Beach.

Once the nests have eggs, they will be enclosed in wire fencing designed to keep out predators but allow the birds to move about the beach. Plover parents are easily spooked, so a perceived threat could prompt them to abandon eggs in a nest. The tiny chicks – often described as “cotton balls with toothpicks for legs” – are unable to fly for about four weeks after hatching.

While other young birds wait for mommy or daddy to deliver meals to them, plover chicks are responsible for feeding themselves within hours of hatching, albeit with parental coaching. And that means these cotton balls must navigate the danger zone between their nests and the waterline repeatedly.

Mating plovers laid eggs on 17 beaches in Maine last year between Ogunquit and Georgetown. Several dozen have returned this year and begun to lay eggs, prompting the teams that survey for nests to erect protective fencing and signage warning visitors away. Eggs typically take about four weeks to hatch.

STATISTICS SUPPORT PREDATOR CONTROLS

Natural predators may pose a bigger and harder-to-control threat to plovers than domestic dogs. But methods to control predators are rarely discussed in Maine – and are often controversial when they do come up.

Since at least 2007, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division has killed gulls, raccoons, skunks, foxes, crows, opossums and other potential predators near plover nests in Maine, according to a summary of the program provided to the Portland Press Herald by the USDA. Maine is one of 13 states where predator control takes place during plover nesting season.

The USDA Wildlife Services’ Maine office did not provide numbers of animals that it said were “humanely euthanized” or where the activities occurred. But it said that sharp-shooting and trapping were both used to remove predators in Maine, as well as non-lethal methods such as electric fences.

“Observed productivity rates (fledglings/pairs) for both piping plovers and least terns was the gauge of success for the work, rather than just numbers of predators removed,” the office said in a written summary. “We also compared productivity rates for beaches where (Wildlife Services) performed predation management to productivity rates of other beaches with nesting piping plovers and least terns where no predation management was conducted.”

The results, according to the USDA, show a clear difference.

Plovers on beaches where predators were killed or removed averaged 1.96 fledglings (chicks capable of flight) per nest between 2007 and 2013, which is higher than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’ goal of 1.5 fledged chicks per breeding pair. Nests on beaches without predator management, however, averaged 1.35 fledged chicks during that time span.

Success rates have increased in both types of locations. But nests on predator-controlled beaches averaged two fledged chicks during four of the seven years compared to only one out of seven years on uncontrolled beaches, according to the USDA.

Hecht with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said predator control is only one part of a multi-pronged strategy.

“The reality is if you take care of the predators but the (off-road vehicles) run over the birds, it really didn’t help,” she said.

Killing some animals to save another is often controversial. But Audubon’s Zitske said predator control isn’t a decision wildlife biologists take lightly.

“We would not be where we are today without that work,” she said “Sometimes tough decisions are necessary.”

PATCHWORK OF MANAGEMENT PLANS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives state and local governments latitude to run plover programs under the implicit threat that failure to protect the birds could land them in hot water. The result is a patchwork of approaches to the bird.

Massachusetts has the strongest state law but relies on towns to fund management programs, often at huge expense to communities. A 2011 Boston Globe survey found several towns spent more than $100,000 annually to protect often just a few dozen birds within their borders.

New Hampshire wildlife officials manage both town and state beaches while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages Rhode Island’s plover beaches in cooperation with the state. In Maine, plover protection differs town by town and is primarily a volunteer effort guided by Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with federal consultation.

Federal wildlife officials have negotiated beach management agreements with five coastal communities, which typically outline standards for activities such as cleaning the beach, placement of lifeguard stands and the hiring of a plover coordinator. Scarborough signed a management agreement after last year’s incident.

“These beach management agreements have been very helpful to us,” said Mark McCollough, endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Maine field office in Orono.

Towns adopt their own beach policies, especially when it comes to dogs.

In Ogunquit, dogs are banned from the beach from April to Sept. 15. “It’s a multi-purpose ordinance. It protects wildlife on the beach but it also protects beach-goers,” said Cindy Douglass, Ogunquit’s plover volunteer coordinator.

Dogs are also prohibited on the beaches at Crescent Beach State Park, Popham Beach State Park and Reid State Park, all of which have had plover nests.

Wells, Kennebunkport, Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach prohibit dogs on the beach during the day and require dogs to be on leashes the rest of the time.

Wells takes its protection efforts even further, prohibiting volleyball, kite-flying, fireworks and the digging of holes in the vicinity of plover nests. Dozens of volunteers there help monitor both nests and beach-goers.

Of course, not everyone who lives in or visits the seaside town is enamored by the little plover.

Some of the most frequent complaints to town officials come from renters of high-priced beach homes who expect a well-manicured beach with smooth sand free of trash and excessive seaweed. Cleaning up seaweed, especially after a strong storm, requires machinery that could scare off a plover parent or crush a chick or a nest.

“Right now we try very hard to have a working relationship with the partners,” Wells Town Manager Jonathan Carter said in reference to Maine Audubon and the state and federal wildlife agencies. “We know that can turn around at any time by doing something stupid or by having an accident.”

HIGH-PRICED PROTECTION

The costs associated with piping plovers can add up.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent more than $980,000 on Atlantic Seaboard and Southern plover populations in fiscal year 2012. But other federal agencies reported spending another $10.4 million to protect or accommodate the birds, such as when the Army Corps of Engineers must review dredging and beach “nourishment” projects for impacts on plovers.

Another independent study determined that in 2002 plover protection was costing $2,350 per breeding pair in the Atlantic population.

The sums spent in Maine are comparatively modest, but still draw down communities’ tax coffers.

Wells residents will be asked at next month’s town meeting to approve $20,000 to hire two part-timers who will clean the beach with hand tools.

Hall, the Scarborough town manager, estimated that the town expects to spend about $15,000 this year on its newly hired beach monitor and new signs advising visitors about the revised dog-walking rules. While it is too soon to tell how many successful plover chicks Scarborough’s beaches will produce, past performance indicates that each chick will cost the town several thousand dollars.

Other towns estimated their plover-related costs in the hundreds of dollars, not including the time of staff such as beach rangers and lifeguards who would already be on the beach.

The cost of plover management cropped up repeatedly during the Scarborough debate over how to strengthen the town’s ordinances in the wake of last July’s fatal dog attack on a plover chick. Some suggested the town would be better off paying the threatened $12,000 federal fine levied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with dog owners even offering to foot the bill themselves.

Hall warned that viewing the $12,000 fine as a one-time event could be dangerous, suggesting that another dead plover chick could be costly.

“For me as town manager, I want to make sure I am protecting the town’s interest going forward,” Hall said.

SCARBOROUGH DEBATE RAGES ON

Since the plover mauling, Scarborough has torn itself apart politically.

After Town Council members tried to ban all unleashed dogs on local beaches, dog owners managed to overturn the ordinance at the ballot box. It’s been nearly six months since the vote and the debate continued last week during an hours-long meeting to discuss new rules that add some restrictions but still allow dogs on the beaches.

On a sunny but blustery afternoon in late April, dogs and their owners outnumbered other walkers on Pine Point Beach not far from the site of the plover death that sparked the infighting.

Paid dog-walker Kayla Sawyer of Gorham said she has never seen a plover on Pine Point Beach and she brings her clients’ dogs as well as her own there Monday through Friday. On this particular day, Sawyer was seated near the dunes tossing a ball for a hyper mixed-breed named Otis while an older yellow Lab named Kenya sniffed leisurely and nuzzled up to a visitor.

“My fear is they are going to say no dogs on the beach at all,” Sawyer said. “This is where I go to unwind. This if my favorite place to hang out.”

Lindsay Connolly, also of Gorham, was tossing a ball for her rambunctious yellow Lab-Great Pyrenees mix, Hanna. Connolly said that if leashes are required, she will probably start taking Hanna elsewhere.

“I think it is a bit ridiculous,” she said of the potential restrictions. “I see the point, … but it was only one incident. And to punish all of the other people would be a shame.”

Glennis Chabot, who has helped coordinate about 20 plover volunteers on Scarborough’s Higgins Beach, said she believes that the silent majority of Scarborough residents – including many dog owners – believe dogs should be kept on leashes during plover season. But many are hesitant for fear of stoking the anger of those fighting the restrictions.

“I think we should be able to share the beaches,” Chabot said. “I think everybody needs to have time and space on the beach, including the plovers.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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