In a case of the birds vs. the foxes, 80,000 people have signed a petition asking the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife to end the practice of culling the red fox population.
On the side of endangered shorebirds — including the plover — the DEP wants to control the fox population.
The petition originated in Brigantine, near the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, where the DEP estimates it traps and shoots about 10 foxes a year.
“I’m a fisherman, an avid bird watcher, and I’m out there all the time,” said John Tefankjian, a self-described beach rat who has lived in Brigantine for 45 years.
He agrees with some of the DEP efforts to protect the birds by closing the beaches during nesting times as well as surrounding nests with fences to keep predators out. But Tefankjian signed the petition to end the fox killing.
Found across North America, plovers in New Jersey nest right on the beach, making them easy targets for predators. They were first designated endangered in the 1980s. Since then, the population has shown signs of recovery along the Jersey Shore, thanks to environmental regulations.
But Tefankjian contends that strong storms and beach erosion — not foxes — are to blame for the bird’s dwindling population.
“The nesting areas themselves are in such a diminished state from storms like Hurricane Sandy that I don’t believe the birds can find a suitable ground to nest in,” he said.
The issue is more “a balance of nature. It’s like if they take the seagulls off the beaches, then you’re going to have all kinds of unwanted stuff on the beach that they usually forage on,” he said.
Brooke Maslo, who specializes in wildlife ecology at Rutgers University, agreed that ecosystems need balance. The foxes, a species introduced to the area by humans, are too smart for the endangered birds, which depend on camouflage for protection.
“Plovers, oystercatchers, least terns, all the beach-nesting birds — they’re all adapted to normal coastal dynamics,” said Maslo. “And because on a large scale, especially in New Jersey, we have stabilized beaches for storm protection and recreation, we have stopped those coastal dynamics that the birds rely on.
“And in doing so, we have also created habit for these predators,” she said.
Those who have signed the petition claim that the DEP’s program is inhumane in targeting adult animals and leaving dens of kits (baby foxes) without parents.
But Maslo said she believes reports of inhumane killing may be related to the state fox-hunting season that runs from December through mid-March.
“They are cute,” said Maslo, who said sympathizes with residents. “I did my Ph.D. research at Brigantine, and the foxes will come right up to you and sit.”
And yet, culling the predator population is a necessary step to protect native ecosystems she said.
“Lethal management is a tough tough decision to make,” Maslo said. “And the bottom line is that lethal management is the one that works the best. And it’s the most cost-effective decision, despite being the most controversial.”
The DEP has said that relocating the foxes would just move the problem elsewhere and that euthanizing the animals is a means of humane control.
A DEP representative did not return calls seeking comment for this story.