The Lesson from Western Beach

Greetings once again, fellow beach, dog and bird lovers,

dogblog--stoogesI hate to do this again, but I need to ask for your patience for a few minutes of serious stuff. After that, I promise we’ll rejoin Mrs. Catsby as she introduces the boys at  Mildew College.

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dogblog-westernbch-sandbagsThe Real Story of Western Beach… and What We Should Learn from It

Western Beach in Scarborough, Maine is privately owned by the Prouts Neck Country Club.  As a result, it does not fall within the scope of the current Ad Hoc Animal Control Advisory Committee’s (AHACAC) review.  Current and past activities at Western Beach are, however, directly and significantly relevant to what our community is being asked (or told) to do with respect to limiting beach access to accommodate piping plovers.

Here’s a quick summary of what the Western Beach experience tells us: We as a society, including the most vocal members of the bird advocacy community, routinely make trade-offs that balance human enjoyment with the best interests of endangered species like the piping plover.   And yet somehow the plover advocacy folks have decided to pursue a zero-tolerance policy with respect to off-leash dogs on the Town’s beaches.  The Western Beach story demonstrates how actions that are clearly and significantly detrimental to piping plovers are tolerated in the interests of maintaining human enjoyment, in this case, the human enjoyment of whacking a small white ball around a golf course.

So now a few salient facts about what’s happening at Western Beach now and what the impacts will be on our piping plover friends beginning in April:

Fact #1 – The dredge project will significantly degrade, if not destroy, the piping plover food source at Western Beach for the 2014 nesting season, and perhaps beyond.

According to the August 20, 2013 letter from USFWS to the US Army Corps of Engineers (p. 19): “Beach nourishment will completely bury the wrack and benthic invertebrate populations [i.e., the stuff piping plovers eat!] in the nourishment area.  These are essential resources used by piping plovers and red knots.  The EA [Environmental Assessment] concluded that there is rapid recolonization of nourished beaches by invertebrate populations (usually within one or two seasons).”  So there’s absolutely no need to worry – these “essential resources,” i.e., food, will return in a mere “one or two seasons.”

Later in that letter: “In your August 5, 2013 letter the Corps [of Engineers] acknowledges that beach nourishment completed in late winter, just before the nesting season, could diminish wrack and intertidal invertebrate populations for the majority of one full nesting season.”  So USFWS and USACE agree that there will basically be no food source for piping plovers on Western Beach for the 2014 nesting season.

Don’t you love the warm and fuzzy sound of “beach nourishment.”  Never mind that it eliminates the plovers’ food source for the season.  What are the chances of Western Beach producing healthy chicks in 2014?  You don’t need to be a wildlife biologist to answer that question.

Fact # 2 – Any beneficial effects of the dredge project on creating suitable plover nesting habitat are temporary.

From page 14 of the same letter: “The cycle of maintenance of the Scarborough River FNP [Federal Navigation Project] causes long periods of time when the carrying capacity of piping plover habitat on Western Beach is greatly reduced or nonexistent.  Beach nourishment temporarily mitigates beach erosion and creates short periods of time when the Western Beach can support up to three pairs of piping plovers followed by years of inferior habitat when no plovers can nest on the beach.”

Please read those last two sentences again and try to convince yourself that the Western Beach “nourishment” is a positive step toward long-term piping plover recovery.  Sadly, some bird advocates will be able to convince themselves that it is.

dogblog-old seawallFact # 3 – The seawall reconstruction project contributes to the instability of plover habitat at Western Beach.

And more, from page 15 of the same letter: “Hardening of the beach by repairing a long-buried seawall on Western Beach could ultimately accelerate erosion when wave energy is reflected back on to the beach.”

The seawall reconstruction part of the current Western Beach do-over is one more element of the project that significantly impedes the piping plover recovery effort.

Fact #4 – In 2004, USFWS essentially told the Corps of Engineers that the impact of the Western Beach nourishment was harmful to piping plovers.  And not to do it again.

After considering the three facts above, you are probably wondering, why on earth would the USFWS approve of this project if they are so concerned with the plight of the little guys?  Well, in essence, they didn’t.  Or at least they said they wouldn’t approve it.

Recall that the current dredge project is a re-play of the 2004/5 dredge project – back then, sand was removed from the channel and placed on Western Beach, just like the current project.  But back in 2004, USFWS warned the Corps of Engineers “if the newly-created piping plover habitat on the nourished beach is lost, the consultations on future dredge projects will likely conclude that there are adverse effects on piping plovers.”  (from page 5 of the same “informal consultation” letter).  Of course, the habitat created in 2004/5 was lost to the easily-predicted erosion.  So why didn’t USFWS cry foul and do what they threatened in 2004 and say this time that the project has an adverse effect on piping plovers?  Excellent question!  And here’s the answer…

The facts add up to a value judgment

Despite the disturbing facts just cited about the impact of the Western Beach projects on the piping plover population, I am not against the renourishment of Western Beach or the seawall reconstruction.  I think it’s an entirely appropriate value judgment to balance the traditional enjoyment of a relatively small number of golfers against manageable threats to the piping plovers. We all just need to recognize that we’re asking that a very similar value judgment be made with regard to off-leash dogs on the beaches… balancing the traditional enjoyment of a relatively small number of dog owners who enjoy off-leash time with their dogs against manageable threats to the piping plovers.  And like all social value judgments, this one should be made by an informed public, not by government bureaucrats.  (Perhaps even by an informed public voting on the matter, as they did this past December 3…)

Put another way: The best thing we humans could do for piping plovers with regard to Western Beach is absolutely nothing.  Let the tides and storms do their things.  Let the dunes fall where they may. Have some faith in Mother Nature’s ability to create suitable piping plover habitat.  A byproduct of that plan would obviously be a smaller golf course.

Yet somewhere along the way, the decision was made to give the golfers’ interests at least as much weight as the piping plovers’.  That decision – of an action which was every bit as controllable as that of restricting off-leash access of dogs to the beach – will without doubt have both significant short and long-term adverse effects on piping plovers.  Adverse impacts that it could be argued will be far greater than those allegedly attributed to well-controlled off-leash dogs.  The Town of Scarborough’s decision on revising current beach access policies should likewise be based on a balancing process like the one that obviously occurred in allowing the Western Beach reconstruction project.

Why Not Just Leave the Little Guys Alone?

dogblog-ppls at beachThe kind of stuff you run across when you start reading “the literature” about piping plovers is absolutely amazing.  I mean, they are fascinating little birds.  Not among the planet’s brightest creatures, to be sure, but fascinating nevertheless.

What half-way intelligent bird builds its nests in locations where they’re going to be washed away by high tides 20 to 50% of the time?  Or scrapes away a half inch of sand and calls it a nest.   But good old reliable Mother Nature has found ways to make up for these shortcomings of intelligence and industry.  In the case of the piping plover, one of these compensating behaviors is the ability to make multiple nesting attempts in a single season.  And at least some piping plovers appear to have adopted “sequential polyandrous behavior,” in which some females may desert their first broods and shack up with another male miles away (Lessells 1984, Warriner et al 1986, Fraga and Amat 1996, Stenzel et al 1994).  (Warning: There’s a potential quiz question there.)

In any event, while you’re picking up all the fascinating information about the plovers, you start coming across some of the results of “Science” studying and protecting the little guys.  For instance:

  •   “This electric fence will keep that fox away.  Oops.

dogblog-fox fence

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“Crescent Surf Beach – Kennebunk… A dead adult male plover was found on April 13th.  It was directly below the cable fencing and may have hit the wire.”  “The wire” mentioned apparently was part of an electric fence that had been erected as a “predator control measure” to dissuade a local fox from bothering the plover nest.  (Source: Audubon 2010 Piping Plover and Least Tern Project Report for Maine.)

  •  “These leg bands will help us track the little guys.  Oops.

 dogblog-plover-band“Between 1998 and 2003, scientists placed nearly 1,100 plastic and aluminum bands around the legs of the birds as part of an effort to track the endangered species.”  Unfortunately, those bands were found to cause leg injuries.

The report continues: “Scientists recovered 140 piping plovers with the tall, anodized aluminum bands. They found 15 of the birds suffered injuries, including 10 with serious injuries and four that lost an entire foot.  The scientists found that others had swollen legs and skin adhered to the metal band. Most of the birds recovered, though the scientists said more may have died from injuries that they didn’t know about.”

But, don’t worry, at the end of the report a wildlife scientist assures us that “any negative impact of the bands is minuscule compared to other problems for these birds,” including, of course, loose pets.  Anyone see a trend here?  (Source: From a 2008 Canadian Broadcasting Company report, )

  • “These exclosures will help protect the little guys.  Oops.

dogblog-crow on exclosureWe’ve all heard about those exclosures of posts and wire fencing that go up around piping plover nests to protect the nests and birds.  But it seems that the crows have now become “smart predators” – when they find an exclosure, they know it’s a great spot to gobble up a plover chick or two as said chicks are on their way in or out of the exclosure.  To a crow, an exclosure is equivalent to an “Eat Here!” sign.  So the use of exclosures is now, as you might imagine, “under review.”  In the meantime, the USFWS “solution” – poison the crows!  I’m not sure what method has been used to control predators on Western Beach in the past; it’s not one of those things they like to talk about in polite society.  (One source, of many: Wicked Local — Provincetown.)  And don’t miss the accompanying editorial that suggests that shooting the crows would be a more humane method than poisoning them.)

If I were a piping plover, I’m not sure how I’d feel about having the government working to protect me.

Update from Frostbite Falls

dogblog-bullwinkle-hat

Bullwinkle: Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.

Rocky: Again?  That trick never works!

Bullwinkle: Presto!

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dogblog-bullwinkle-ppl.

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Bullwinkle: Oops… wrong hat!

Rocky: Bullwinkle, that’s not a rabbit…that’s a sandpiper!

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dogblog-boris and natasha

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Natasha:  Wrong, leet-tle squirrel, that’s a piping plover.

Boris Badinov:  You in B-E-E-E-G trouble, Moose!

Deep-voiced Announcer:  Will Bullwinkle be fined $12,000 for an unauthorized take under 16 USC §§ 1531-1544?  Will the plover be offered a $500 travel voucher for a future flight?  Will Rocky be required to be on an 8-foot leash at the Frostbite Falls Avian Beach Resort?   Tune in for the next exciting adventure – “Getting Your Moose Under Voice Control,” or “Oddly Audubon.”

Thought for the Day

dogblog-AristotleThis popped up a couple days ago on a “thought of the day” email I receive:

“Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” – Aristotle

I know it doesn’t translate very well from the ancient Greek. But I think in modern English it basically boils down to “if a subject can’t stand a bit of fun being poked at it, maybe it’s a bit shaky to begin with.”   Old Aristotle got it right.

So on with the raillery!

dogblog-thank you

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