Partnership between state wildlife agency and private landowners enabled researchers to get good data on habitat and breeding; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides threatened listing isn’t needed
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A partnership between the Colorado Division of Wildlife and private ranchers enabled researchers to show that mountain plovers are not as rare as previously believed.
Partially as a result of that research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded earlier this month that the plover does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The ruling came May 10, after the federal agency reviewed research showing that the plover population is robust. Led by avian researcher Victoria Dreitz, the CDOW studies showed the plover is an adaptable bird that can breed on agricultural fields and may benefit from cattle grazing, according to a press release from CDOW.
Colorado’s eastern prairies, along with grasslands in the high-elevation South Park basin are strongholds for the bird, and populations are double the estimates first used to list the bird as a candidate for endangered species status. Colorado may provide breeding habitat for up to half of the continental population of mountain plovers. Smaller, more isolated breeding areas occur throughout the western Great Plains region.
The mountain plover is a small brown bird with a lighter-colored breast that resembles a killdeer. Unlike other plovers, mountain plovers are not found near water and only inhabit areas with short grass and bare ground.
Division Director Tom Remington said researchers would not have been able to provide the information that convinced federal biologists that the mountain plover did not require listing without the active cooperation of Colorado’s agricultural landowners.
“It was a considerable leap of faith for so many private landowners to let state biologists on their land to look for a species that appeared headed for a federal listing,” said Remington, who was the Division’s avian research leader during much of the project. “But we asked for their help and they gave it to us.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service first identified the plover as a “candidate” species deserving ESA protection in 1993 and proposed to list the species as “threatened” in 1999. The Service withdrew the listing proposal in September 2003 based on the conclusion that the threats to the mountain plover as identified in the proposed rule were not as significant as previously believed, and that information available at that time did not indicate the threats to the mountain plover and its habitat were likely to endanger the species in the foreseeable future.
After lawsuit by a conservation group, the federal agency once again agreed to again consider whether the plover needed federal protection.
Collaboration and conservation
Russell Davis, whose family runs 1,000 cattle on 12,000 acres near Karval, said he “wasn’t real excited” to find a plover researcher on his land early on. But Davis said his friends and neighbors in the community realized the benefits of helping the Division build good data on plover numbers and habitat needs to the development of a scientifically sound listing decision. In the process, he said, many came to see their land in a new way.
“I had been real reluctant in working with anything like this at all because I had better things to do, like run a ranch,” Davis said. “But over the last seven years, we’ve come to realize there’s a lot of good things going on for wildlife here. We don’t put up a sign for the plovers. They keep coming back on their own for a reason.”
In concert with DOW research efforts, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory led a landowner outreach program to promote and support plover conservation on private lands during the federal review period.
Working directly with the Division, the RMBO hosted landowner meetings to educate producers about how to avoid plover nests to aid in the species breeding success. The group developed an educational film depicting what plovers and their nests looked like from the cab of a tractor and various outreach materials, including placemats that were distributed to many of the cafes in eastern Colorado.
The RMBO also set up a call-in number for farmers to schedule field survey so technicians could flag plover nests before tilling and planting. Once flagged, the producer would simply have to drive around the nest, which the birds then reoccupy after the tractor passed.
Along with the support of landowners like Davis, agriculture groups like the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Cattlemens’ Association helped the effort by adopting supportive policies and encouraging landowners to participate.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said the latest research demonstrates that the mountain plover’s geographically widespread breeding and wintering distribution, coupled with its ability to use a variety of habitats, including agricultural lands, protect the species against the risk of extinction.
“We conclude that human land use changes, alone or in combination with climate change, are not likely to result in significant population-level impacts to the mountain plover in the foreseeable future,” the agency said.
Despite the uncertainty caused by the 12-year listing debate, Davis said that landowners now have a better appreciation for the broader impacts of their agricultural practices. Local participation in the plover project led to the creation of the Karval Community Alliance, which hosts an annual plover festival each spring that draws birders from around the country.
“We’ve got community collaboration, research, voluntary incentive-based efforts - at the end of the day, isn’t that what we want?” Davis said. “Working on this has pretty much changed our community.”
Ken Morgan, the Division’s private lands specialist, said the plover project offers a model for wildlife conservation on private lands.
“This effort emphasizes the role that private, agricultural lands play in long-term conservation of wildlife species,” Morgan said. “Landowners and agricultural organizations who stepped up at the beginning of this process deserve full recognition. The relationship we developed continues today.”
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