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More needs to be done to protect threatened birds at river jetty ‘dog beach,’ environmentalists say

More needs to be done to protect threatened birds at river jetty ‘dog beach,’ environmentalists say
A stretch of county-controlled beach near the mouth of the Santa Ana River has long been a de facto off-leash "dog beach." (File Photo)

Environmentalists say the rare and sensitive western snowy plover is feeling ill effects of dogs frolicking in the surf at a de facto “dog beach” near their habitat at the mouth of the Santa Ana River and that, despite measures like leash laws, government could be doing more to help.

One conservationist suggests there could still be a dog beach, as long as it’s not at the Orange County-controlled river jetty near the Newport Beach-Huntington Beach border.

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Garry Brown, executive director of Orange County Coastkeeper, a Costa Mesa-based environmental group, told the California Coastal Commission at its meeting this week in Newport Beach that the state agency should step in to put some weight behind the dog issue, which he said is a problem lacking leadership to fix.

Whether that means the commission should urge more conversation between Newport and the county or give a direct order, “this should be a problem that reasonable people can sit down and figure out,” Brown said Thursday.

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In 2016, the county Board of Supervisors halted a final vote on an ordinance that would change county law to permit off-leash dogs on that stretch of sand. Environmental groups raised concerns that unleashed canines could cause harm to two at-risk bird species — the California least tern and the western snowy plover.

The western snowy plover is a small, nonmigratory shorebird that the federal government lists as threatened. It feeds on insects and small invertebrates like marine worms, which it pecks out of the sand, and dead seaweed that washes ashore. The bird roosts mid-beach or in dunes areas.

The western snowy plover is a small, nonmigratory shorebird that the federal government lists as threatened.
The western snowy plover is a small, nonmigratory shorebird that the federal government lists as threatened. (File Photo)

Scott Thomas from the Sea & Sage Audubon Society said at the Coastal Commission’s Wednesday session that even controlled dogs can spook the plovers.

“When dogs approach, whether it’s on leash or off leash, [the birds] move … out of areas where they’re supposed to be,” he said. “They stop doing the foraging they’re supposed to do. They stop doing the breeding behaviors they’re supposed to do.”

Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon, whose council district borders the “dog beach” at the river jetty, told the commission on Wednesday that in the past two years Newport police had given 404 warnings, written 111 citations and made one arrest over alleged leash and time violations on city land abutting the beach.

Dogs are allowed on Newport’s beaches only before 10 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m., and only if on a leash. Off-leash dogs are not allowed on any public spaces, including beaches.

“I want to make it very clear that the city is doing everything possible and more to ensure that we are protecting our natural resources,” Dixon said. “It has been said before, but some areas such as the river jetty are controlled by the county of Orange and not under our control, so that is a challenge.”

The city’s other plover protection efforts include monitoring a sandy habitat the city fenced off between B and G streets and drafting a plan to improve management of the fenced area. The plan, released this summer, includes several references to local animal control measures and the threat dogs may pose to the birds.

Thomas said Newport is going in the right direction but that there’s still a problem.

Brown was more direct. He claimed the city doesn’t want to face the problem head-on — that its leash ordinance can lead to tickets for dog owners, but tickets aren’t enough.

The environmentalists spoke about the plovers during public comment periods, so the commission took no action. But Brown was optimistic that the state could work with the city and county for a solution.

One answer, he suggested, is for Newport to formally dedicate a stretch of its coastline to canine play, as long as it isn’t near sensitive habitat.

He said Coastkeeper employees are encouraged to take their dogs to the organization’s office and that Newporters should be able to access a portion of the beach with their dogs too.

“This shouldn’t be and isn’t about dogs vs. birds,” Brown said.

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