This past spring a lonely plover stopped by a beach along the St. Louis River, which winds southwest out of Lake Superior. A century ago, this wouldn't have been an unusual sight; some 800 pairs of Piping Plovers nested around the Great Lakes system then, before habitat loss and predation caused a spiraling decline to less than 20 pairs by 1986. Subsequent recovery efforts—managing and cleaning up habitat, banding birds, and even starting a captive breeding program—invited some of the beloved birds back to the Great Lakes to nest. But even after 31 years of restoration, no plovers returned to the spot along the St. Louis River.
So the plover visitor that day was a novelty. Luckily, a bird monitor from the local nonprofit St. Louis River Alliance caught an exciting glimpse of the wader as it poked around the beach, foraging for food—but only for a fleeting moment. Before long, a dog scampered into view, spooking the shorebird and cutting its visit short. It didn’t return.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Alyssa Hoppe, project manager at the St. Louis River Alliance based in Duluth, Minnesota. “It’s sad to see the only Piping Plover look for habitat and be chased away by a dog because it decreases the chance that birds will nest there.”
The plover scare on the St. Louis River was a turning point for Hoppe. Wherever plovers breed—whether along the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, or along the Atlantic coast—birds and biologists come to a head with visitors who bring their dogs in tow. Hoppe had to find a solution. Birds and other critters can’t tell the difference between a domestic dog and a wild predator, and so a dog roving a beach, off-leash or on, signals that the habitat isn’t safe and deters plovers from nesting. Once a nest is built, the mere presence of a dog can cause a plover to abandon its nest and save itself at the expense of its offspring. And in the worst case, dogs can injure or kill adults and chicks or crush eggs.
Dog owners don’t want to harm wildlife; they often just don’t know any better. So Hoppe decided to have the St. Louis River Alliance try out the B.A.R.K. Ranger program, which trains volunteers and their dogs to be furry ambassadors to the public and educate visitors about dog–wildlife interactions. The program was started in 2015 by park interpreter Rainey McKenna at Olympic National Park, and has since spread to parks across the country. The goal is to fashion dog-owning volunteers into ideal park visitors who model good behavior and encourage other dog owners to follow the rules, which are spelled out by the B.A.R.K. acronym: bag dog waste, always wear a leash, respect wildlife, and know where dogs can go in the park.
It’s not only about threatening wildlife, either. B.A.R.K. Rangers also promote good practices that can positively affect park habitat. Dogs can disturb plant growth when running off trail, or distribute invasive seeds and pests trapped in their fur. Plus, they leave presents in the form of waste, which not only get stuck to the next visitor’s shoe, but also pollute waterways.
In the past, parks have tried to address these problems by restricting dog access to beaches and trails, and fining owners who break the rules. Apart from being hard to enforce—especially with funding cuts limiting the number of available staff—it can lead to escalating confrontations where law enforcement needs to be involved. B.A.R.K. Rangers, on the other hand, are more like peers than police, and the hope is that dog owners will be more receptive to their teachings.
B.A.R.K. Ranger programs are popping up across the country, from urban Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington to rural Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas. Some park programs have events where dozens of dogs and their owners undergo training during guided walks, while others only admit a handful of applicants who attend a series of training sessions that discuss everything from First Aid to the sites’ unique wildlife.
The differences in each program are specific to the park, its needs, and its wildlife. Where Pedernales Falls may mention the Golden-cheeked Warbler in its wooded areas, the program that St. Louis River Alliance is starting in Duluth might speak about Piping Plovers.
Hoppe’s group isn’t the first to train B.A.R.K. Rangers to protect plover nesting areas. On the northeast shores of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is now starting its second year of the program. Thirty volunteers, many returning from last year, attended the last two B.A.R.K. Rangers meetings the park has held this spring. It’s too soon to tell how successful the program has been for the plovers’ productivity, says biologist Sue Jennings. (Most programs only have a year or so under their belt.) “It’s hard to say, but we do know that it’s visible [to the public],” she adds. “It’s been positive.”
Even so, negative dog–plover interactions still occur. At Sleeping Bear Dunes, plovers started nesting before the B.A.R.K. Rangers arrived for their summer shifts. As soon as a pair settled down to nest, the beachfront was closed to dogs, and park staff put up signs and barricades to notify the public. Still, just last week a bird monitor found a dead plover mom mere feet away from a protected nest, surrounded by dog prints. When the incident happened, there were no park staff around or any volunteers, furry or otherwise. The male plover is continuing to incubate the full-clutch nest, which should hatch this week.
“It’s one thing if it’s an avian predator, or other wild animal” that kills a plover, Jennings says. But it’s frustrating when it’s someone’s pet. “The crews are working so hard to ensure success, and then something like this happens,” she says.
The new program at Sleeping Bear Dunes isn’t perfect, but it’s making strides. The park staff has invested heavily in training and supplies in hopes that volunteers can share the burden of protecting the beachfront. (That’s especially important because the proposed federal budget for 2018 would cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which provides money for plover habitat management, the captive breeding program, and more.)
It’s just another part of the toolkit to alleviate the dog–wildlife problem, while highlighting the issue to the public. “The more we can get local folks interested in it, the more likely you can have favorable results,” Hoppe says. And maybe, with enough education, the next plover that arrives along the shores of the St. Louis River will feel safe enough to stick around for a while. “Hopefully, the B.A.R.K. Rangers will be part of that,” she says.
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