CHATHAM – Members of the park and recreation commission are interested in expanding opportunities for dog owners to walk their pets on town beaches during the summer season, but state and federal regulations designed to safeguard nesting shorebirds could be an impediment.
Currently, dogs are not allowed on town beaches from May 1 to Sept. 15, with the exception of Jackknife Harbor Beach, where dogs can be walked between those dates before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m. Violations can be punishable by a $50 fine.
Commission members suggested that Lighthouse Beach could, like Jackknife Harbor Beach, be an option for walking dogs in the early morning and evening during the summer.
“There's got to be a little give and take,” said commission member David Mallowes.
Lighthouse Beach is considered a priority habitat and rare and endangered species such as the piping plover, said Lyra Brennan, assistant director of the Mass Audubon Coastal Waterbird Program, which works with the town to monitor nesting shorebirds on town beaches. Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon said in such areas, state and federal guidelines recommend pets be prohibited between April 1 and Aug. 31. Technically dogs should be leashed and under the owner's control under the guidelines.
The guidelines are designed to prevent a “take” of a protected shorebird, nest or chick, which can mean death, injury or even just disturbing or harassing nesting birds.
“Both the state and federal guidelines exist to minimize the risk of that happening,” said Brennan. The result can be severe. A town in Maine, she said, was fined $25,000 for not enforcing the guidelines and allowing a “take.”
Shorebird monitors observe noncompliance with the town's regulations during the summer as well as dogs being allowed off leash, she said. Last year two dogs contributed to the loss of a nest on Harding's Beach.
Audubon monitors have no enforcement authority but try to educate people about the regulations, Brennan said. Once they understand the rules, people usually take their dogs off the beach, “but often they don't,” she said.
Dogs being present on Lighthouse Beach, even in the early morning hours, can discourage shorebirds from nesting, even if no nests or birds are destroyed, and be considered a “take,” said Keon. While there has been a lot of bird activity on Lighthouse Beach, there have been no successful nests in the past few years, Brennan said.
Lighthouse Beach is also considered a beach nourishment area, and permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service require enforcement of dog regulations, she added. The beaches near Outermost Harbor, where dredging is happening, are also covered by those restrictions. Violation of those regulations can endanger dredging permits, Keon said.
“It's a challenging thing” to balance access to the beach and the regulations, said Brennan.
Commissioner Meredith Fry suggested the same regulations in place on North Beach Island might be appropriate for Lighthouse Beach. On the island, dogs must be on a 30-foot leash from March 15 to Sept. 15, and dogs are prohibited in areas closed due to nesting shorebirds.
“The penalties are severe, and there is absolutely no allowance for dogs off the leash,” Keon said. The issue with applying those rules to Lighthouse Beach, Keon said, is enforcement. Shorebird monitors are on North Beach and North Beach Island every day, and access is limited to those with beach stickers or who arrive by boat, but there are no monitors on Lighthouse Beach, which is accessible to anyone.
Perhaps the solution, Fry said, is to find a location in town for a dog park. She asked that the commission continue to discuss the topic at future meetings.