A piping plover chick dashes across the wet beach sand of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine.
A piping plover chick dashes across the wet beach sand of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine. (Photo: Sarah Fensmore/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Piping plovers, one of North America's most endangered shorebirds, has been making a slow, steady comeback along the Atlantic coast, thanks to a host of federal and state conservation measures.

Of course, like any other well-intentioned attempt at endangered species management, it's complicated. Most everyone would agree these little toothpick-legged cotton balls need to be saved, but opinions on the best way to do that are fiercely divided.

Piping plovers once thrived along the East Coast of North America, but their populations took a nosedive starting in the 19th century thanks to decades of unchecked plume hunting (that's the harvesting of bird feathers for use as ornamentation in ladies' hats) as well as an influx of predators that had been previously absent in bird's native environments. Although plume hunting was finally outlawed in the early 20th century, the damages have been long-lasting, and invasive predators? Well, that's never stopped being an issue.

By the mid-1980s, it was estimated that there were only about 800 piping plover pairs left along the Atlantic Coast — a troubling statistic that prompted the federal government to designate them as a threatened species. Massachusetts took this a step further, filing the species under an additional set of strict, state-level endangered species protections, which made it illegal to kill them or disturb their migratory, breeding and feeding patterns.

To comply with these laws, large swaths of beaches in Massachusetts are closed to the public every year for the breeding season, usually from early April until mid-August. Thanks to these comprehensive measures, the state's plover population has risen from 139 pairs in 1986 to 501 pairs in 1999. The species was brought back from the brink, but make no mistake — it'll be a long time before these cotton ball-like avians are out of the woods, which is why beach access restrictions remain in place to this day.

Newly hatched piping plover chicks rest inside their sandy nest at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County, Rhode Island.
Newly hatched piping plover chicks rest inside their sandy nest at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County, Rhode Island. (Photo: Josh Seibel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Of course, not everyone is happy that large chunks of Massachusetts' beaches remain closed for extended periods of time during the region's peak economic season. Some residents of Cape Cod are skeptical the plovers even deserve such a level of protection. This is an especially contentious topic for the hundreds of people who like to drive off-road vehicles along certain beaches where it's legal to do so.

"I don’t have a lot of love for the birds at all," Dick Seed, a Cape Cod resident and manager of Truro Beach, told Kris Frieswick of Boston.com. "They’re a pain in the neck, and the care of them has gotten too intense."

To make matters more complicated, recent estimates have shown that the increase in the piping plover population has effectively plateaued over the past several years. It turns out that any increased gains made by restricting human activities are being undercut by the longstanding issue of predators. After all, even if you cut off beach access to humans, that doesn't stop opportunistic wildlife from raiding the plovers' delicate, sandy nests.

A pair of adult piping plovers mate on a beach.
A pair of adult piping plovers mate on a beach. (Photo: Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock)

What's interesting is that this population plateau is more common along remote stretches of beach that are heavily restricted and receive little human traffic. Why? Because coyotes, foxes and other predators generally feel more comfortable hunting where there are less people around.

The issue of predators has some people wondering if shutting down sizeable swaths of beach for months at a time is not only more trouble than it's worth, but possibly even detrimental to the livelihood of plover parents and their chicks.

Frieswick breaks down the numbers for several plover protected communities along the Cape: "Sandy Neck has never lost a plover to human meddling, but [in 2011], coyotes, crows, gulls and other animals ate the eggs and chicks in 18 of its 44 nests. In Plymouth, a plover hasn’t been killed by a human since 1996; yet in 2005, all 15 plover pairs lost all their eggs to predators."

Newborn piping plover chicks rest after hatching from their eggs.
Newborn piping plover chicks take a moment to rest after hatching from their eggs. (Photo: Mary Beth Charles/Shutterstock)

Now that predators have established themselves as the number one threat to these tiny birds and their eggs, the long-term strategy for national plover conservation is making a shift that includes habitat protection and predator management.

So how does predator management work in practice? In the Portland Press Herald, writer Mary Ann Bragg spells out the recommendations from the state of Massachusetts:

"To eliminate predators, the state [habitat conservation plan] proposes using traps for mammals such as raccoons and skunks, and then killing them [...] Nighttime mammalian predators such as coyotes and foxes would be identified with spotlights or thermal imaging equipment and then shot with suppressed rifles or shotguns. Bird predators would be shot with firearms equipped with silencing devices, and crows may be poisoned. Feral cats identified as predators would be given to local animal shelters."

That's a tall order for many conservationists, who would prefer to avoid killing one animal to save another. However, while some communities in Cape Cod have begun carrying out some of these measures, the efforts of one town on the crook of the Cape may end up proving to be the future model of plover conservation.

A piping plover chick nuzzles its parent on the beach of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.
A piping plover chick nuzzles its parent on the beach of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Kaiti Titherington/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Last year, the scenic community of Orleans pioneered a plan that would allow beachgoers and piping plovers to peacefully coexist without resorting to the widespread euthanasia of predator wildlife.

The federally approved program involves loosening restrictions on recreational beach access while also implementing an unique strategy for non-lethal predator management that uses electrified decoy structures.

Set up along the beaches, these decoys are baited with salmon and rigged with 5,000-6,000 volts of electricity, which makes for an uncomfortable experience for hungry predators trying to nab the bait. The hope is that these non-lethal electric shocks will condition predators to avoid not just the decoy structures, but also the similar looking, non-electrified exclosures that are used to protect plover nests.

"In the beginning we did have digging and circling, intensive circling, with the bait," Nate Sears, the natural resources manager for Orleans, tells WBUR. "Once the animals had been shocked … that has pretty much phased way back to the point where we’re not having any digging or intensive circling on any of the freshly baited decoy exclosures."

Bolstered by the success of this strategy, Orleans' groundbreaking plan is now being streamlined for use in other coastal communities across the state.

"Orleans went through a lengthy process with both state and federal officials to implement the plan." Zeninjor Enwemeka writes for WBUR. "A statewide plan would streamline that process by providing a master permit for other Massachusetts towns to implement their own site-specific plan."

An adult piping plover and three tiny chicks.
An adult piping plover and three tiny chicks. (Photo: Kaiti Titherington/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.