Red foxes, piping plovers compete for beach front property

Red foxes prey on endangered piping plovers along the New Jersey Shore. Managing their numbers can be controversial because the animals are championed by coastal residents.

Red foxes prey on piping plovers, an endangered bird species, and can be hunted and trapped during specific times. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection traps and kills the foxes to protect the plovers. (Big Stock photo)

Red foxes prey on piping plovers, an endangered bird species, and can be hunted and trapped during specific times. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection traps and kills the foxes to protect the plovers. (Big Stock photo)

Brigantine, New Jersey, is just north of Atlantic City. (Google Earth image)

Soon after David and Peggy Coffey purchased their summer condo in the beach town of Brigantine, New Jersey, they were approached by an animal as they sat outside.

“What kind of dog is that?” David remembers asking his wife. As it got closer, they realized it was a red fox. They soon learned the small predator is a common sight throughout the island.

They were once even more common.

Steve Turner, a musician who has lived in Brigantine since 2013, said he has seen a drop in the numbers recently. Lifelong residents have told him that the population indeed appeared to be diminishing. Years ago, Turner said, he would go out to the dunes at night and shine a flashlight to see five or more pairs of fox eyes looking back.

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Last spring, residents learned what was happening to the foxes of Brigantine — and most were not happy about it. The foxes were being trapped and killed to reduce their impact on endangered and threatened birds that nest on the beach, most notably the piping plover, state officials said.

The migrating bird is listed as endangered by the federal government. It lays its speckled, camouflaged eggs in small groups near the dunes on beaches throughout the state. But the vast majority of New Jersey’s coastline has been heavily developed with large crowds arriving each summer, crowding out the plovers.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said last year the state contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to trap foxes to protect beach-nesting birds. He said most years, about 10 of the animals are trapped and shot.

Some in Brigantine were incensed.

Hundreds commented on the Facebook page Real Brigantine, the vast majority decrying the culling. Many said the fox population could become endangered.

“Why is the state so obsessed with the piping plovers? I doubt if most people could even identify them on the beach from the common sandpipers. Don’t mess with nature’s way; stop killing the foxes,” wrote one commenter, expressing what seemed to be a consensus.

Is the New Jersey DEP Poisoning Brigantine's Unofficial Ambassadors ?The DEP denies this claim and states it does not allow poison as a method of predator control. “DEP does not, and never has, approved the poisoning of fox as a method of control.” “The Division of Fish and Wildlife only approves of humane control methods. This is important in a protected natural area where fox can be a significant threat to endangered species, in this case shorebirds. Fox can also spread diseases such as rabies to other animals and people.” DEP Press Officer Lawrence Hajna wrote in a statement.Evidence of poisoned Brigantine Foxes and snare traps have been found in the dunes. If the NJ DEP denies responsibility, who is killing the Foxes ? Brigantine's most photogenic resident is our barrier island red fox, also affectionately known as Briggy. Most people don’t expect to find wildlife on the island other than gulls and the occasional greenhead. But here in Brigantine if you are walking the beach at dusk or early in the morning before sunrise, you might see a quick furtive animal go running across the beach or over the dunes. Welcome to the red fox.Even though some summer visitors may worry about their own pets, foxes are virtually harmless to humans. They usually weigh between 8 and 15 pounds and wander alone. They generally will leave pets alone and have been viewed playing with cats in the streets. While rabid foxes have been found in Atlantic County, Brigantine has no record of a rabid fox incident on the island.If you have any concerns about the poisoning, use of snare traps or the inhumane treatment of animals. Please take action… or write to:NJ Department of Environmental Protection31 Batsto RoadHammonton, NJ 08037Batsto Office: (609) 561-0024Real Brigantine finds these practices totally unacceptable as well as you all should. Please support us and the City of Brigantine in finding a more effective and better plan than what has been given to us by the NJ DEP for the North End of Brigantine.

Posted by Real Brigantine on Sunday, March 18, 2018

A slideshow posted last year on the Real Brigantine Facebook page shows pictures of dead foxes. No dates or locations are provided with the photos.

Tens of thousands signed an online petition seeking to protect Brigantine’s foxes. Life-sized drawings of the animals have appeared around town, posted on city buildings near the beach. State Sen. Linda Greenstein of Mercer and Middlesex counties, introduced a resolution in June, asking the DEP to find another way, citing Brigantine’s particular appreciation for the animal. That resolution essentially died without a vote in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

On the Real Brigantine social media page, Turner is described as “The Fox Whisperer” for his extraordinary video of fox kits playing near the beach. He said he does not have any expertise but has come to love the animals and enjoys seeking them out in the wide dunes of Brigantine’s south end.

Turner said that most in Brigantine see their foxes as an unofficial mascot. Some of the most intense fox advocates now seem to hate piping plovers, he said, but he does not want to see the birds come to harm.

“There has to be a sensible solution that doesn’t involve saving one animal at the expense of the other. I don’t go out to the savannah and start shooting lions because I don’t like what they do to zebras,” Turner said.

The state doesn’t have any choice, according to John Heilferty, the acting chief of the Endangered and Non-Game Species Program under the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. He said the state is obligated by law to protect endangered species.

“Whether people think it’s fair or not is not mine to judge or to comment on,” he said. When species are listed as threatened or endangered at the state or federal level, certain things have to happen. “It’s really not a matter of fairness if they even wanted to characterize it that way. It’s a matter of what’s required by law.”

He said the migrating plover and other species do not belong to Brigantine or to New Jersey, but to the nation as a whole — and New Jersey has an obligation to protect them.

Culling is not the first response for the state, Heilferty added.

Beach-nesting birds are extraordinarily vulnerable, he said, to habitat and human disturbance; to storms and rising sea level; and to predators, including cats, dogs, raccoons and foxes. He described trapping predators as just one of the tools wildlife officials use.

Some methods of protecting the plovers are entirely nonlethal, Turner said, including placing protective cages over nests to keep gulls, crows and foxes away from the eggs. Volunteers and staff keep track of the nests throughout the state.

Heilferty said he understands why some people love foxes. He called them remarkable, beautiful animals. But their large numbers throughout New Jersey increasingly infiltrate populated areas.

Bridges to the barrier islands have made New Jersey’s beaches far more accessible to the species, which seems to thrive on barrier islands throughout the state.

“I don’t particularly find them to be emblematic of the coast,” Heilferty said. “To the contrary, I would argue that these beach-nesting birds that can only live in these coastal ecosystems are much more indicative of these coastal ecosystems.”

New Jersey has seen a steady decline in the number of piping plovers nesting along the state’s 130 miles of beach. Last year, Heilferty said, just 96 nesting pairs were counted along the length of the state. Of those, two nesting pairs were in the North Brigantine natural area. Both succeeded in chicks that survived long enough to fly away on their own.

It’s too early to say whether the fox trapping will continue this year, Heilferty said. The plovers will return from their wintering areas in the Carolinas and elsewhere along the southern coast in March and begin to nest in the early spring, he said.

In many Shore towns, reaction to the resident foxes is not nearly so welcoming. Some see the animals as nuisances or even fear for pets and small children, although most experts suggest there is almost no likelihood that a healthy fox would harm a human.

With proper permits, it’s legal to hunt and trap red foxes in New Jersey. For perspective, 11,207 foxes were killed by hunters statewide from 2017 to 2018, according to the DEP’s posted estimate of the small game harvest.

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