Maine Town Seeks to Resolve Contentious Dog vs. Bird Issue

May 6, 2014

The town of Scarborough is grappling with how to protect the federally-protected piping plover without angering dog owners.
Credit Creative Commons

Officials in Scarborough are due to vote tomorrow night on a key ordinance regarding the contentious matter of canine activity on its beaches.  And you can bet that the results of that vote will be scrutinized by the federal government. The issue goes back 10 months to last summer when the town incurred the wrath of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after an unleashed dog killed a piping plover - a federally-protecting diminutive shorebird that makes its summer home on the sandy beaches of southern Maine, from Ogunquit up as far as Georgetown. Tom Porter has more.

Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, where a dog attacked and killed a federally-protected piping plover last summer.
Credit Tom Porter

It was here on Pine Point Beach where the attack happened. Scarborough has four beaches, all providing great habitat for piping plovers. They come to Maine in the spring, but not in great numbers - 44 nesting pairs were observed last summer. The sandy dunes here make an ideal place for the birds to nest and lay eggs. Once the chicks are able to fly, they're gone - and that tends to happen in July or August.

Scarborough recently hired Ryan Wynne to monitor piping plover nesting areas and educate the public about the birds.
Credit Tom Porter

Ryan Wynne is the piping plover co-ordinator recently hired by the town of Scarborough to monitor the nesting areas and educate the public about these birds - creatures which he describes as looking like a small marshmallow with toothpick legs.

"They are a very charismatic bird - by that I mean they're really cute, which for protecting something, it always helps," Wynne says.

At the moment, says Wynne, there's at least one pair of piping plovers nesting at Pine Point. When they're not in their nests, the plovers can sometimes be seen hunting for grubs under the sand in the intertidal zone - and this, he says, is where they're most at risk from being disturbed by other animals of humans. If they're left alone, the birds can be gone in just two or three months.

"The sooner they can nest and have a successful nest, the sooner they're out of here," Wynne says. "So what we're trying to do is make sure they have prime habitat - protected, not being harrassed - and they can lay their eggs, get their young out and be on their as soon as possible."

Wynne is about to start recruiting volunteers to help monitor the piping plovers, and he hopes some of these volunteers will also be dog owners. He regards himself as something of a mediator in a local conflict, "trying to ease some of the tensions between dog and bird. I feel like that's how this issue is always brought up - you know, dog people versus bird people - and I don't want that to be the case. I'm a dog owner as well. I use these beaches all the time."

Wynne was hired by the town of Scarborough as a result of pressure from the federal government. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially threatened the town with a $12,000 fine after the incident last summer. This was later changed to a $500 fine on the condition that a beach coordinator was hired as a part-time seasonal position.

The feds also want the town to change its rules governing canine activity on beaches. The town council initially did this, voting in October to ban unleashed pets from its beaches all year round. This sparked outrage among many of the town's dog owners, and the measure was overturned in a December referendum.

On Wednesday night the council will vote on another ordinance - one that it hopes will be acceptable to the feds and to dog owners like Katy Foley.

Katy Foley prepares to take her border collie/lab mix Darlan for a walk on Pine Point Beach in Scarborough.
Credit Tom Porter

"Darlan! What do you say? Want to go for a walk on the beach?" Foley is about to take her border collie/lab mix Darlan onto Pine Point Beach for some exercise. She's with a group called Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough - DOGS for short, which played a key role in organizing opposition to the stiffer leash laws voted on by the council in October.

This time around, she says there'll have to be a compromise, and she accepts that many dog owners will not be entirely satisfied with the new ordinance. "It's about balance and we're not going to please everybody," she says.

Foley firmly believes, however, that all well-behaved dogs should have unleashed access to the beach for some time every day. She has a problem with the town's proposal to establish restricted areas, based on where the plovers are nesting, inside which all dogs would have to be on a leash.

"I don't agree with that," Foley says. "I have spent hours and hours and hours analyzing the data, talking with friends and experts from all walks of life - friends who are ornithologists, friends who are game wardens, believe it or not - and the data just simply doesn't support that dogs are the number one predator of plovers."

"Really, what it amounts to is that the needs of some of the folks in the community, the DOGS group in particular - they're the ones that kind of articulate the position best - is almost irreconcilable with what the feds are telling us," says Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall.

"This has been incredibly divisive and it's abundantly clear that we're not going to be able to satisfy all parties," Hall says.

The big worry for Hall is that further punitive action may be taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if the new ordinance - to be voted on Wednesday night - falls short in its eyes.