(A piping plover at Duxbury Beach.)

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sharpshooters were dispatched to Duxbury Beach in early May and killed two coyotes and a lactating fox as part of the Duxbury Beach Reservation’s (DBR) new predation program. It was instituted in 2011 to protect nesting piping plovers and least terns from various predators that feed on their eggs and chicks.

In a May 12 written report issued by Michael Pforr, the Endangered Species Officer for the Duxbury Harbor Master, he wrote: “The USDA has eliminated 2 coyote and 1 female fox which was lactating, meaning that there is most likely a “den” and fox pups somewhere on Duxbury Beach or Gurnet/Saquish. This nesting season there has been no predation by coyote or fox of plover nests. Again, this is not a guarantee that there are not additional coyote or fox on the beach, nor does it mean that they will not take up territory on the beach from adjacent lands.”

Pforr’s report also states that in 2010 American crows “scoured the dune and habitat areas on foot looking for nests.” That year, officials killed 13 crows using eggs baited with poison according to a source familiar with the program. Efforts to reach Pforr were unsuccessful.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the piping plover is designated as “threatened” and interior populations of the least tern “endangered.” In Massachusetts, the least tern is considered of “special concern” by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. As such, both are federally protected and fall under the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) program whose mission includes, “carrying out wildlife damage management activities.” Duxbury Beach, privately owned by the Duxbury Beach Reservation (DBR), is one of only a handful of nesting sites used by the remaining 650 pairs of piping plover in Massachusetts. It is also one of the few nesting sites open to human recreation – and only because of the stringent rules instituted by the DBR.

Maggie Kearney, president of the Reservation, said the trustees of the DBR voted last year to institute a predation program at Duxbury Beach after numerous fledglings were wiped out by crows and coyotes.

“The whole point of the predation program is to keep our plover fledgling at or above levels to sustain the species,” said Kearney. “Last year we made that a little better and we hope to do that this year. Two years ago, the coyote population wiped out the entire tern population. We had two fledglings left. Last year we had ten. If we fail at that, our beach is threatened to be closed, that’s why we protect them.”

Dr. Scott Melvin, senior zoologist with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Division of the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, has been working with the DBR to protect the birds. He said that in 2011, there were 12 pairs of nesting plovers on the beach, with a total of 650 statewide and 1,750 along the Atlantic seaboard. According to Melvin, the plovers numbers are not at a sustainable level for survival, so every effort must be made to protect them from becoming extinct. By instituting the predation program, which he said was not required by state or federal officials, Duxbury Beach is more likely to remain open to the public.

“It’s something we suggested as an option to them when it became apparent over several years that predators were substantially reducing the reproductive success of piping plovers and least terns,” said Melvin. “Predation was far and away the most limiting factor of reproductive success.”

When asked why the two coyotes and mother fox were killed when there were no signs that they had preyed on nests this year, he said it is important not to wait until there is an attack. Due to the abundant coyote, crow and fox populations, killing potential predators is an acceptable tactic in a multi-pronged approach to preserving the birds, according to the Fisheries and Wildlife Management plan.

“Piping plovers are the rarest species of nesting shorebirds in North America,” said Melvin. Coyote and fox are abundant statewide and regionally. Many more are killed during hunting season and due to vehicle interaction. The idea is to do this surgically at the beginning of the nesting season.”

Kearney understands that the public may not be pleased to learn sharpshooters were at Duxbury Beach or that wildlife is being killed so that a handful of birds might live. She said $150,000 was spent to protect the birds and that last year they managed to save 16 terns and plovers. Before voting to accept the recommendations of Melvin and instituting the predation program, the DBR held public meetings to hear residents’ concerns. No one attended.

Said Kearney, “It’s the old balancing act.”