SCARBOROUGH – The mauling of an endangered piping plover by a dog at Pine Point Beach July 15 has landed Scarborough in hot water with the federal government, and led the town to reconsider rules governing dogs on the beach.

According to Town Manager Tom Hall, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation to determine if the town should be held responsible for the plover chick’s death. With just 47 nesting pairs in Maine, the piping plover is listed as an endangered species by the state. On the federal level, it holds the status of a “threatened” species.

At the same time, the Scarborough Town Council is considering changes to the ordinance that says when dogs are allowed on the beach, and when they are allowed to run without a leash.

On Monday, Eric Holmes, a Maine-based senior special agent A federal agency is investigating the death of a piping plover, while the town reconsiders its beach rules.

By Duke Harrington

[email protected]

The mauling of an endangered piping plover by a dog at Pine Point Beach July 15 has landed Scarborough in hot water with the federal government, and led the town to reconsider rules governing dogs on the beach.

According to Town Manager Tom Hall, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is conducting an investigation to determine if the town should be held responsible for the plover chick’s death. With just 47 nesting pairs in Maine, the piping plover is listed as an endangered species by the state. On the federal level, it holds the status of a “threatened” species.

At the same time, the Scarborough Town Council is considering changes to the ordinance that says when dogs are allowed on the beach, and when they are allowed to run without a leash.

On Monday, Eric Holmes, a Maine-based senior special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement division, refused to say whether an investigation was under way.

“There is no public information at this point,” he said. “We can neither confirm or deny. That’s pretty much our standard line.”

Holmes’ supervisor, Daniel McNamara, the acting resident agent in charge of law enforcement for Fish & Wildlife Region 5 – the six New England states – said Monday from his Chelsea, Mass., office that he, too, could not confirm federal interest in the plover death.

“It’s policy of the agency not to comment on any criminal investigation,” he said. “Once the criminal matter is concluded, if there is one, you could file a Freedom of Information Act request for the results.”

McNamara also declined to estimate how long an investigation might take to complete, if one is under way, or what penalties, if any, might apply.

“I’m not trying to stonewall you,” he said. “There’s just nothing I can comment on.”

Hall, however, was less truculent about the case.

“I guess I can confirm it since he [Holmes] sat here in my office on Thursday and said as much,” he said. “It appears there is no action that is going to be taken against the dog owner. What that means is that the angle the feds are taking is that the town is somehow in violation.”

Hall said he has cooperated with Holmes’ investigation by providing minutes from Town Council meetings in April and May of 2004, the last time a change to the ordinance regulating dogs on town beaches was considered. VHS tapes of those meetings also are being sent to Holmes, said Hall.

On Tuesday, Sgt. Tim Spahr of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who was in last week’s meeting between Hall and Holmes, said the state investigation remains an open case.

Charges could still be filed against the dog owner by either the state or federal government, said Spahr, adding that he “really could not speak to” when a decision might be made. However, he noted that the town also could be found liable.

“That’s all part of it, because if the dog owner didn’t do anything wrong, then maybe the town ordinance was wrong,” he said. “All I can tell you is that we are working with other agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, to make a determination.”

Dogs are allowed to run free on Scarborough beaches, albeit “under voice control,” during most of the year, and from sunrise to 9 a.m. from June 15 to Sept. 15. During the summer, dogs may not be on the beach at all from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and present only on a leash limited to 30 feet in length from 5 p.m. until sunset.

On Tuesday, Scarborough’s Town Council Ordinance Committee was expected to take up a change in those rules. Hall said an actual draft would not be on the table, but that Chairman Richard Sullivan, acting on a request by Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist, would open a conversation on the topic.

“My hunch is that the amendment that would be the starting point for council deliberation would be not to totally disallow dogs, but to require them to be on a leash during the nesting period,” said Hall.

Sullivan could not be reached for comment Monday, but Hall said Ahlquist, a longtime park ranger at Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth, now assigned to Rangeley Lake State Park, has championed a change from behind the scenes for “at least two months.”

“It is wrong for dogs to be running at large out there,” said Ahlquist last week. “I think the time has come for a leash law on the beach year round.”

The town does require that dogs be kept at least 150 feet from fencing put in place to protect the plover, a small shorebird that migrates between the Atlantic Coast of the United States and the Bahamas. During its annual head count this spring, Maine Audubon staff counted a single pair of nesting plovers at Pine Point Beach. Of four eggs, three did not hatch and the lone chick was killed. Witnesses to the mauling brought the dead chick to the nearby Audubon office on Pine Point Road and a press release was issued by Fish & Wildlife. That prompted the dog’s owner, who has yet to be named, to step forward.

According to Spahr, if charged and prosecuted, the dog owner could face a fine of up to $1,000 from the state, although jail time, though possible, “is unlikely.” Federal fines can range up to $50,000.

On Tuesday morning Robert Rovner, a six-year resident of Pine Point, was busy placing flyers on cars in the town parking lot. Marked “**Extra Urgent**,” the flyers urged dog owners to attend Tuesday’s ordinance committee meeting.

“Don’t let on rotten apple spoil the whole bunch,” it read.

“All of us who live down here know about the plovers and respect them. Everyone who comes down here does,” he said, calling Ahlquist’s proposal to tighten the dog restrictions “closed minded.”

“The town has enough ordinances in place to control this already. It just has to enforce those laws,” said Rovner, pointing to Audubon reports and local lore, both of which put the dog attack at 10 a.m., an hour past the time when dogs were supposed to be off the beach. “After this incident, we saw game wardens down here we haven’t seen in years.”

“The town has the ability to fine him up to $250,” he said. “Personally, I believe this particular person should be banned from Pine Point Beach for the rest of his life and never be allowed to come down here again, because he’s ruining it for everybody.”

Out on the beach, a dozen dogs could be seen just in front of the parking lot entrance, running free along the waterline, playing, jumping, splashing and rolling in the sand. More dogs, on and off leash, could be seen up and down the length of the beach. The scene was, said Rovner, “part of the charm” of Pine Point in the morning.

“You can see dogs up and down greeting each other, dogs they see every day, these are their friends,” said Gail DeRice, of Falmouth, who makes a daily visit to Pine Point with her two Portuguese waterdogs, Molly and Dylan.

“Little by little, places where dogs can run are being taken away,” she said. “To make us essentially keep our dogs in cages, that’s unkind, too. It’s definitely a quality-of-life issue.”

“I think one owner doesn’t spoil it for the 99 percent,” agreed Molly Bull, of Westbrook, out with her 10-month-old Lab, Max, brandishing plastic bags used to ensure that people who visit the beach after her dogs get as much enjoyment out of the scenic environment as Max.

“People have had a symbiotic relationship with dogs for 15,000 years,” she said. “It would be a shame to have them chased away because of this.”

“I could just stay home and walk my dog in Falmouth,” said DeRice, “but this is a big part of my dog’s life. My dogs want to come to the beach. They need this social interaction. There are places like Camp Bow-Wow where dogs can run with other dogs, but for those of us whose financial situation or schedule can’t accommodate that, this is the perfect answer.”

Deb Flanagan and her dog Murphy play in the surf at Pine Point Beach Monday morning. After a dog off its leash killed a piping plover chick at Pine Point on July 15, a federal agency has launched an investigation. At the same time, the Scarborough Town Council is considering changing the rules governing when dogs can be off leash.Signs warn beachgoers at Pine Point of the presence of the protected piping plover population.The Scarborough Town Council is considering changes to when dogs can be without a leash at local beaches, including Pine Point Beach, a popular dog-walking location.


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