LITTLE COMPTON — It’s a classic conflict between two desirable but incompatible pursuits — walking with one’s dog on a beach, and protecting endangered piping plovers and their fledglings.
The conflict went to the Little Compton Town Council on July 25. The council took no action other than to acknowledge it and endorse the offer from Town Council President Robert Mushen to discuss the matter with the Beach Commission, the police chief, and others.
The clock may run out before any decision is made. About three and a half weeks is left until Labor Day. That’s when the annual prohibition against dogs on Goosewing Beach, intended to protect piping plovers during nesting season, expires.
Dogs scare the plovers, says John Berg, Sakonnet landscape manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) which owns and manages Goosewing Beach.
Unfortunately for the birds, plovers share the beach with people’s dogs, and with other predators like foxes, crows, raccoons, mink, seagull, and occasional hawks, said Mr. Berg.
“We’ve had cameras at the plover enclosures showing the presence of wild predators,” he said.
And so serious has the issue of dogs on the beaches become that the Conservancy, under a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has provided up to $7,500 to the Little Compton Police Department to aid in the enforcement of the prohibition.
“Too many people are going down there with dogs, and the Conservancy asked us to help bring to people’s attention that, hey, this is a restriction,” said Little Compton Police Chief Sidney Wordell.
Part of the debate is confusion about when the beaches are considered “open” under town ordinances, when dogs and their owners may walk on which beach, and whether dogs must always be leashed.
Goosewing Beach is a 75-acre preserve that runs for about three-quarters of a mile past the east end of town-owned South Shore Beach.
Goosewing preserve is primarily accessible by way of South Shore Beach from the west. The beaches are contiguous, and only a small creek divides them — when the creek is running.
Piping plovers nest and hatch their fledglings on Goosewing and are protected as a listed species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There’s a $25,000 fine for willfully harassing or harming the plovers, says Mr. Berg. The Conservancy prohibits dogs (and kites) on Goosewing from April 1 to Labor Day.
“It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of the plover, and they’re always concerned about predators and threats to themselves. They’re camouflaged, but that’s all they’ve got going for them,” Mr. Berg says.
“Since piping plovers will abandon their nests or young in the presence of dogs, and dogs are known to chase birds, no dogs are allowed on Goosewing” during this time, says the Conservancy in a statement explaining its policy.
“We’d love to have people come and visit, but if they’d leave their dogs at home until the baby plovers have fledged, we’d appreciate it, ” Mr. Berg said.
Dave Toracinta, 59, a town resident, is retired from a 29-year career in law enforcement with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
For 20 years, he says, he’s walked his dogs on the beaches from one end of South Shore Beach to the far end of Goosewing.
“We just walk along the wet sand,” below the mean high tide line, which he says he has a constitutional right to do under Article 1, Section 17 of the Rhode Island State Constitution.
“Leashed dogs are not a problem for plovers,” said Mr. Toracinta in an e-mail to Pat Griffin, chairman of the Little Compton Beach Commission that was presented to the Town Council. Mr. Toracinta addressed the council on the subject when it met July 25.
He said he has researched what other beaches do that have plovers, and says seagulls are worse than leashed dogs.
The conflict is exacerbated by the proximity of the two beaches.
Town ordinances (Secs. 9-3.4, 9-3.6, and 4-2.2) prohibit dogs — in fact “all animals” (except seeing eye dogs) — on Goosewing Beach between April 1 and Labor Day, and they prohibit dogs on South Shore Beach “during the hours the beach is open.”
The ordinance (Sec. 9-3.5) does not say when the beach is open. Instead, it specifies when it is closed, which is between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Some contend that South Shore Beach is actually “open” when the beach shack at the entrance is open and the lifeguards are on duty, which is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the season.
As a result, some people walk the beach with their dogs between 6 and 8 a.m., before the beach staff show up for work, and from 5 p.m. (after the lifeguards have gone home) and 11 p.m.
Chief Wordell said the department deploys an average of seven 2-hour random details, paid for under the grant from TNC, to Goosewing Beach each week, often during the early morning and evening.
“Our main goal is to protect the nesting birds,” he said, and “to enforce and educate — and I emphasize the word educate, because that’s what we we want to do with the public concerning that.” He said the focus is Goosewing, not South Shore Beach.
Chief Wordell said, “more and more people are going down there with dogs, and it’s becoming an issue. The plover is the trump card.”
Thus far, Chief Wordell said last Friday, no citations have been issued, and just 12 people have been contacted. A few people have been upset, he said, but the concerns were all resolved by discussion.