by John Skinner
If you're a surfcaster, piping plover shorebirds have probably cost you some lost beach access and inconvenience. If you were a fox at Robert Moses State Park early this year, the plovers may have cost you your life. The trapping and killing of nine foxes by wildlife officials at the park has been widely reported and discussed. The justification was that circumstantial evidence suggested that foxes were killing piping plovers, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). As was reported in Newsday, there was no hardcore proof that foxes were killing plovers, but plover carcasses had been found near fox tracks, and foxes were seen near plover nests 21 miles away at Jones Beach.
Ronald Foley, the Long Island Regional Director of the State Parks Department said the number of nesting pairs of piping plovers at Robert Moses has dropped significantly. There were 24 pairs in 2009, 11 pairs in 2010, and 12 pairs in 2011. Foley said the fox population surged during this period, although there had been no official count. In the Newsday article, Foley further justified the killing of foxes noting that "They're common on Long Island," unlike the plovers that are protected under state and federal law.
The action drew loud complaints by many who felt that nature was just taking its course and the killing of the foxes was unjustified. Foley stated, "We're expected to maintain balance, but when the very existence of a species is at stake, the balance has to be in favor of that species." Seriously? We (humans) are supposed to referee interactions between native species in predator-prey relationships? I guess we can leave that open for debate. Foley's statement left me wondering just how much the "very existence" of piping plovers is in jeopardy at this time. Rather than look at the population over a very small area – Robert Moses Park, let's do the right thing and look at the big picture.
According to the 2010 Update of the Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Population released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlantic Coast piping plover estimate was 1,782 nesting pairs, well more than double the 1986 estimate. Even discounting apparent increases due to increased census effort early on, the population has posted an 86% increase between 1989 and 2010. There have been periodic decreases observed during this time of overall increase, but no matter how you crunch the numbers, the birds are much more plentiful than when they were put under ESA protection in 1985. Are they getting close to the point that they can be delisted? It doesn't look like it.
One of the main criteria for removing the Atlantic Coast plovers from the endangered species list is that they maintain for five years a total of 2000 breeding pairs coastwide. The coast is broken into "Recovery Units". The New England Recovery Unit goal is 625 pairs, and they've exceeded that since 1998. The New York-New Jersey goal is 575 pairs, and this number was passed in 2007 with 586 pairs, but it dropped to 554 pairs the following year. The Southern Unit (DE, MD, VA, NC) goal is 400 pairs. Although their best surveys have found approximately only 330 pairs (2007,2008), the population increase seen since 2003 is encouraging. With a peak of 274 pairs in 2002 and 253 pairs counted in 2008, the Atlantic Canada Unit goal of 400 pairs is being reconsidered.
Taking into account that the birds still haven't broken through the 2000-pair coastwide goal, and they're going to need to do that for 5 consecutive years, it's safe to say we won't see plovers delisted from the ESA anytime soon. That means continued beach access restrictions for surfcasters and other beachgoers. Given current management strategies and attitudes, the impact on foxes appears much more severe.