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Federal Safety Net Sought for Imperiled Mountain Plover

Groups File Suit to Obtain Endangered Species Act Protection for Declining Bird

Additional Contacts: Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (307) 742-7978

Denver, CO - WildEarth Guardians and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed suit in federalcourt against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for refusing to list the mountain ploverunder the Endangered Species Act. Just when the mountain plover was finally on track forlisting, the Fish and Wildlife Service pulled a sudden reversal-removing its proposed rule to listthe species on September 9, 2003.

WildEarth Guardians and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance charge that government’s decision todeny protection to the mountain plover is based on interference from political appointees withinthe Fish and Wildlife Service. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Actindicate Service higher-ups rejected advice and biological data provided by their own careerscientists that supported mountain plover listing. Political interference in listing isillegal, given the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that listing decisions be solely based onbiological information.

“The mountain plover case reflects a pattern of denying Endangered Species protection forpurely political reasons,” stated Dr. Lauren McCain, Deserts and Grasslands Program Directorfor WildEarth Guardians in Denver. “We’ve seen this with many other species, including theGunnison’s prairie dog. Corporate lobbyists are currently dictating Endangered Species policy,not sound science.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated this imperiled grassland bird a candidate for listing asThreatened in 1982. For over 20 years the species languished in the purgatory of EndangeredSpecies Act candidacy. Biological data demonstrate the species has not made a recovery andcontinues to trend toward decline. Threats to the plover include urban sprawl, agriculture,escalating oil and gas development, and harm to prairie dogs, which provide important ploverbreeding habitat.

Rampant oil and gas extraction across the west is destroying wildlife habitat nearly everywhere,including the mountain plover’s. What were once key habitat areas for the bird are now lacedwith drill pads, rigs, and new roads; this is especially true in Wyoming, Montana, northeasternColorado, and Utah.

“The last mountain plover population in Utah went extinct recently in the midst of intense oiland gas development, proving that this rare bird warrants the protection of the EndangeredSpecies Act,” observed Erik Molvar, Wildlife Biologist with Wyoming-based BiodiversityConservation Alliance. “And elsewhere in its range, from the Powder River Basin to the RedDesert, key mountain plover habitats are increasingly being targeted for heavy-impact oil and gasprojects.”

There is also concern about the loss of habitat due to agriculture and development that has beenparticularly dramatic in California. Scientists believe over 90 percent of the birds winter inCalifornia. The state’s plover population once concentrated in the Central Valley, butdestruction of natural habitat forced the bird out. Despite some remnant populations, winteringmountain plovers now cluster in the Imperial Valley and are totally dependent on an artificialhabitat created by irrigated alfalfa fields.

Habitat loss is also a key factor in the mountain plover’s breeding range. The range spans alongthe western Great Plains concentrating in the shortgrass prairies of Montana, Wyoming, andColorado. The breeding range in the U.S. was once expansive, including larger areas of NewMexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. The bird is considered extinct inNorth and South Dakota and critically imperiled in Nebraska and Kansas. The loss of prairiedog colonies, a preferred habitat of the mountain plovers, has been tied to plover declines.

Conversion of native grassland to cropland has also forced the plover to nest in agriculturalfields, leaving nests vulnerable to destruction by machinery. Some Colorado and Nebraskafarmers participate in a voluntary program, where biologists check fields and flag nests to enablefarmers to avoid them when they plow. The program is funded by state wildlife agencies andadministered by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Some believe the mountain plover wastaken out of Endangered Species listing consideration because of pressure by agriculturalindustry groups fearing that farmers would be punished for harming the birds.

“Mechanisms in the Endangered Species Act protect landowners from being penalized whenthey help conserve species,” added McCain of WildEarth Guardians. “We support increasedincentives to encourage farmers to take steps to help conserve plovers.”

Despite persistent attempts to block endangered species listings by industry representatives andtheir friends in Washington, the Endangered Species Act remains extremely popular with theAmerican public. The November 7 election demonstrated this once again. Voters oustedMontana’s Senator Conrad Burns and California’s Congressman Richard Pombo, who both madepersistent attempts to gut the Act. The election results show that Americans are ready to punishelected officials who attempt to weaken their cherished Endangered Species law.

Mountain Plover photo courtesy of USGS. May be reproduced.


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