BRIGANTINE, N.J. — Brigantine’s North End is an environmental treasure – and a wildlife battleground.
Predator red foxes roam the beaches of the New Jersey Shore town, threatening piping plovers, an endangered, delicate bird species that nests near sand dunes. But Brigantine residents adore the foxes and are angry at the state Department of Environmental Protection for trapping and shooting them. They say they don’t want the birds harmed, either.
Now the city government has entered this beach brawl, hoping for an amicable resolution in this Atlantic County community of 9,000 residents.
“We have to find something constructive,” said Deputy Mayor Vince Sera. “Maybe if we find a way to work together, we can work out a way to protect the piping plovers and the foxes.”
The DEP did not provide figures on the number of red foxes on Brigantine, but said the “bigger risk is that the species will become overabundant in some areas.” In 2018, the state said it traps about 10 red foxes in the Brigantine North End Natural Area each year.
As of 2018, there were 96 pairs of piping plovers in New Jersey. Brigantine this summer had two nesting pairs that produced four chicks.
Brigantine officials sat down with representatives from the Division of Parks and Forestry and Division of Fish and Wildlife in mid-July to discuss the best way to protect both species.
Mayor Andy Simpson said the meeting was a positive first step, opening the door for future discussions, plans to protect and manage both species, and community education initiatives.
“It’s government, and it does take a long time, but hopefully we get a resolve on the foxes,” Simpson said. “Maybe we can move forward.”
Entering the meeting, several city officials would have sworn the foxes had been mistreated and residents robbed of their furry friends. Sera said misinformation regarding the foxes and plovers has existed in Brigantine for years.
In February 2018, the DEP held a meeting at Brigantine North Middle School to inform the public of recent changes in the North End Natural Area and of preservation efforts for the plovers.
After the 20-minute presentation, the public forum, attended by 400, erupted into chaos, Sera said, after a resident showed an image of a fox in a snare trap on a North End beach.
“People blasted [the DEP] for about three hours,” Sera said. “The importance of what they were trying to do got lost.”
Since the 2018 meeting, contact between the DEP and Brigantine officials has been restricted to necessary correspondence. Meanwhile, images of snare traps accompanied by captions lamenting the foxes’ plight circulate on social media, and some citizens have been moved to take matters into their own hands.
This year, eight people have been fined by the DEP for trespassing in the North End Natural Area and tampering with traps. Four paid fines on July 8. A second round of alleged trespassers will face a judge on Aug. 26.
Two residents cited by the DEP declined to comment, saying they did not want to complicate their cases.
Councilman Richard DeLucry said the fines inspired his decision to renew talks between the city and the state agency.
In that July meeting, the DEP repeated what it tried to convey in 2018: Trapping foxes is necessary and conducted humanely.
“We are pleased to have open lines of communication with Brigantine and feel that recent conversations have been very productive,” said Caryn Shinske, public information officer for the DEP.
Contrary to public opinion, the DEP told city officials, the snares do not strangle the foxes. The devices, set at night, catch the foxes and use a stopper to ensure they can breathe. State officials gather the animals early the next morning and shoot them, to regulate the fox population, Sera said.
At the July meeting, Brigantine officials questioned the DEP about traps found south of the natural area. The state agency responded that it had not set those snares, nor had it contracted with any private trappers in the area, owned by the city.
Sera said the city now believes two commercial trappers falsely stated they were hired by the DEP to capture foxes. He speculated these illegal trappers are strangling the foxes, and city officials have asked the public for information.
Despite better relations between city and the state agency, many residents remain steadfast in their opposition to fox trapping.
A recent petition “Stop Killing Foxes in Brigantine, New Jersey!” has received nearly 120,000 signatures. Donna Graziolo DeAngelis, 63, of Brigantine, who started the petition in the spring of 2018, said the piping plovers face many challenges aside from foxes, including other predators and the inability to adapt to increasing development along the Shore.
“DEP claims [the traps] are humane, but they’re not,” DeAngelis said, adding that snare traps are banned in Los Angeles.
Judy Davies-Dunhour, the mayor of nearby Stone Harbor, said residents there have also been upset by DEP trapping. Davies-Dunhour met with representatives from the DEP on May 8, but she said the meeting was unproductive. She said the DEP made clear it was not open to alternatives to trapping.
“Sure, they clarified their mission,” she said. “But there’s no room for movement in those discussions.”
Brigantine and the DEP hope to meet again soon to work toward long-term solutions, Simpson said, although no date has been set. The DEP said piping plovers require habitat restoration, reduction of human disturbances, and predator management in order to thrive. Foxes, meanwhile, are “abundant” in the state and are at risk of overpopulation.
City officials said they recognize the situation could take years to resolve.