The residents and officials of Stone Harbor are the latest shore community to grapple with conflicting feelings about wildlife.

At Stone Harbor Point, state wildlife officials have trapped and killed a small number of foxes to protect endangered beach-nesting birds.

People would prefer that dwindling species weren’t eliminated from New Jersey, but they love foxes, which seem so much like man’s best friend. Never mind that foxes elsewhere in the state are legally trapped and killed for their pelts — these are their foxes, in their town. What are these birds that need protection anyway?

Well, they are piping plovers, black skimmers and least terns, also quite beautiful forms of wildlife but much rarer. The state’s endangered species law isn’t just about protecting them, however. It’s also about preserving New Jersey’s disappearing natural habitat — in this case waterfront dune forests that once lined the shore but now exist only in a few places.

Like some fox fans in Brigantine who have objected to the way beach nesters there are protected, Stone Harbor foes of killing foxes that are eating the precious eggs and hatchlings wonder why seemingly obvious alternatives aren’t used.

One repeated suggestion is to live trap and relocate the foxes. Since foxes can carry rabies, they can’t just be moved to another area, and leaving them in town would let them continue preying on the endangered birds.

Others suggested letting nature take its course. It’s way too late for that.

One reason these birds are down to a handful in the state is because people have developed nearly all the beaches where they nested. Another is that foxes are subsidized predators — fed by people’s trash, litter and pet food left outdoors — that thrive in surbuban environments. In nearby Ocean City, people feeding foxes helped spread an epidemic of mange among them.

Preserving the endangered birds also conserves what’s left of their part of nature. Protecting natural habitats is even more crucial than protecting species in this most densely populated state in the nation.

Stone Harbor officials are exploring whether there are more humane ways of controlling the foxes. That may not be easy and might be expensive, if possible. Foxes are very wary. And they may not share a person’s view of what would be a preferred solution.

We leave it to wildlife biologists to ensure whatever is done still protects the beach-nesting birds and what remains of nature along the shore. That’s the least that is owed to future generations.

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