In New Jersey, plan calls for killing foxes to protect endangered piping plover

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

RIGANTINE, N.J. — Residents of Brigantine Island are rallying against the state killing foxes in the North Brigantine Natural Area, while wildlife enthusiasts stress the need to protect the endangered piping plover.

The foxes – which adapt easily to living near people and are common all over the state – are being killed because they eat the endangered piping plover and its eggs. There are only about 100 pairs of the tiny beach-nesting birds left along the entire 127-mile coastline, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

State data show four pairs of piping plovers nested in the Natural Area in 2017, fledging nine chicks. But in the early 2000s, 17 pairs bred there.

The DEP contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to trap and shoot the foxes, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

“By law, traps have to be checked every day,” he said, to minimize suffering.

Brigantine summer resident Joseph Oliverie opposes the fox culling. He wrote to The Press that he believes the foxes keep the rodent population under control.

“In the past two years there has been an issue of field rats which seem to be growing,” he said, speculating the loss of foxes is the cause.

But Hajna said the state has always controlled the fox population there, and while the number taken varies each year, it has not increased dramatically. It averages about 10 foxes a year.

North Brigantine is one of only a handful of undeveloped beaches in the state, Hajna said. So it’s one of the few places the piping plover can get from their nests in the high sand to the waterline to feed without having to navigate through groups of people.

“This is a complex wildlife management issue and is not at all unique to New Jersey,” Hajna wrote in an email response to questions about the practice.

Hajna said the DEP and U.S. Fish and Wildlife “have to make tough calls in order to protect endangered species, in this case bird species that are struggling to survive due to habitat loss and human encroachment.”

Foxes cannot be live-trapped and moved, because that would only transfer a potential problem. Not only are they a danger to the plover, but foxes can be a danger to human pets, transmitting diseases like rabies and mange, he said.

Others have suggested fencing in the plovers. Hajna said piping plovers need to move to the waterline to feed, so fencing wouldn’t work.

The state has long owned and managed the area, but until this year had allowed the city of Brigantine to manage permits for beach driving there. Driving is restricted in the area where piping plovers are during nesting season.

In 2016, Brigantine residents found traps in the sand dunes in North Brigantine and objected. But it is legal to trap foxes there.

Trapping foxes is a legal commercial activity in New Jersey. Almost 9,000 red fox were harvested in 2015-16, the DEP said.