National News

To Save One Precious Animal, a Town Must Sacrifice Another

Posted May 6, 2018 8:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2018 8:43 p.m. EDT

BRIGANTINE, N.J. — Red foxes can be found all over New Jersey, wandering out of the woods and poking though garbage at dusk in search of a meal. In many places, they might be overlooked, if not seen as a disease-carrying nuisance. But not in Brigantine, an island community where the fox has become an unofficial ambassador.

Many residents warmly share stories of their encounters, like the fox that would routinely come up to a back door or the time a children’s soccer game had to pause so one could cross the field. A fox makes an appearance on the cover of the city’s tourism guide, as much of an attraction as its golf course and pristine beaches. A real estate company regularly sends its mascot, Briggy the Fox, to community events.

Yet the island is also the seasonal home to piping plovers, a small bird that returns every year to dig its nests on the beach. The bird is an endangered species in New Jersey that state wildlife officials closely watch and fiercely protect, including from foxes, creating a bitter conflict that has caused an uproar as residents protest the trapping and killing of the animals.

Some are challenging the use of snare traps, a contraption that they describe as cruel and painful. The contretemps has also stirred a wider debate: Is it fair to kill one animal for the sake of protecting another?

“It disgusts me,” said Donna Vanzant, who owns a marina. “Why go after these gorgeous animals? Just let nature take its course.”

State lawmakers recently wrote a letter to wildlife officials expressing their “deep concern,” and the City Council passed a resolution condemning the “inhumane and indiscriminate killing of red foxes.” Briggy the Fox attended the meeting and held a sign: “Please stop killing my friends.”

“Everyone on the island cherishes the foxes and does not want them killed,” said Donna Grazioli DeAngelis, a retired teacher who started a petition online, which about 90,000 people have signed. “They have been so respectful, so perfect in every way,” she said of the foxes. “People paint them, photograph them. They haven’t been a nuisance in any way.”

Brigantine, just north of Atlantic City and connected to the mainland by a single bridge, has wandering roads packed with towering beach houses and dotted with the occasional sign warning of crossing turtles and golf carts. The city has a year-round population of 9,000, with another 20,000 or so residents who, like the plover, flock back when the weather warms up.

State officials have set aside a smooth slice of shore, on the north end of the island, for the plovers to build their nests far from any development. After the birds arrive, portions of the beach are closed, giving the visitors a wide berth to lay their eggs. Cages protect nests from predators, and if a wily creature figures out it can dig its way in, another level of security — electrified fencing — is added.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the state, also sets snare traps in the brush along the shore to capture foxes before the birds even arrive, a practice that officials said has been routine for years. The state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife said that only about 10 foxes were captured on Brigantine beach this year, roughly the same number it caught every year, and that the trapping was finished for the season. Hunting and trapping foxes is legal in New Jersey; as many as 9,000 foxes across the state have been taken each year by trappers, according to recent state data.

The tempest over the foxes has coincided with a decision by state wildlife officials to take control of the beach area where the plovers nest after years of sharing oversight with the city. The Department of Environmental Protection announced last year that it would reduce access for vehicles onto the beach, limiting it to anglers.

In February, hundreds of residents attended a public meeting with wildlife officials over beach access, where a resident brought up concerns about dead foxes she had seen, drawing the community’s attention. Then, the situation intensified after photographs of dead foxes were shared on a popular local Facebook page.

Since then, one city official said he worried about people coming across “piles of carcasses.” A resident who said he has recently spotted foxes in the area shields that location as if it were a state secret.

Some in Brigantine argue that the fox has been unfairly targeted while other predators like raccoons and even sea gulls pose just as much of a threat. They have also argued that there must be an option other than killing the animals.

“You have to protect the endangered species, and there’s only so many ways to do it,” Rick DeLucry, a city councilman, said. “But is this really the only way, or the best way? That can’t be right. There’s got to be something else.”

Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the snare traps were “an acceptable management tool.” He added that relocating the animals, as some have suggested, was not feasible, citing concerns about possibly spreading disease or creating a nuisance somewhere else.

While there are plenty of foxes in New Jersey, the plover is in a much more precarious position. “They’re having a tough time of it,” Hajna said. The piping plover, a shorebird with a wingspan of only about 15 inches, has light brown and white feathers that allow it to blend in with the sand. The birds usually return to the Atlantic Coast in March and make nests that are little more than scrapes in the sand lined with pebbles and shells.

But a changing coast, in many places consumed by development, has eaten away at their habitat and made it more difficult for them to nest. Some states have made progress in restoring their plover population, but it continues to dwindle in New Jersey and New York.

“There aren’t really any safe havens left for them to nest, or not many,” said Todd Pover, a senior wildlife biologist at the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.

The plover has figured in debates in recent years over projects to bolster shores washed away by Hurricane Sandy, like the federal government’s effort to replenish dunes on Fire Island. Conservation groups argued that the project would disturb the bird’s nesting area. And in 2015, there was a fight in some ways similar to the one in Brigantine as conservationists urged state officials in New York to remove feral cats that had long lived on Jones Beach, on Long Island.

Researchers say that the bird’s survival, at least in New Jersey, is largely dependent upon wildlife officials stepping in. Dave Jenkins, the bureau chief for the fish and wildlife division’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, described the piping plover as “one of the most intensively monitored and managed species.” He said the state has a biologist and six other employees and a team of volunteers dedicated to the plover and other endangered shorebirds.

Some in Brigantine believe that the intervention has upset the natural balance of the island. Residents complained that foxes were becoming harder and harder to find and that rats and other pests were thriving because the foxes were not there to hunt them.

“It’s an overreach and overreaction,” Philip J. Guenther, Brigantine’s longtime mayor, said of the fox trapping. “It just doesn’t seem to make any sense from a protection standpoint.”

It takes a bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the part of the shore reserved for plovers. Longtime residents can tell how the coast has evolved, as wooden piers and the foundation of an old Coast Guard station rise higher out of the sand than they remember.

This spring, plovers have made their way back to the island, but their nesting has been delayed by a stubborn winter. An employee with the Division of Fish and Wildlife patrolled the beach on a recent day in a pickup truck, keeping those who did not belong from entering. Waves crashed onto the shore in the wind, and the beach was largely empty. Only a few fishermen had driven onto the sand, and there was not a fox in sight.