Today, WildEarth Guardians and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance prevailed in a lawsuit brought to protect a rare bird that breeds in the Rocky Mountains and winters in Southern California. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to take the first steps towards protecting the mountain plover under the Endangered Species Act. The conservation groups were represented by Earthjustice.
“The mountain plover is an American bird in deep trouble mostly due to development of the areas it needs to live,” said Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley. “Today’s news is a step in the right direction to get protection for this species.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others recently released a report showing that grassland birds, including the mountain plover, are experiencing the most rapid declines among the country’s birds. In a March press statement Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar stated, “Birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems,” and added, “We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”
“Given Secretary Salazar’s interest in doing more for our imperiled birds, we are optimistic that mountain plovers will get the federal protection they desperately need,” stated Lauren McCain of WildEarth Guardians. “However, the Secretary and the Fish and Wildlife Service must act promptly to prevent species extinctions, in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the mountain plover a candidate for listing as threatened in 1982. For over 20 years the species languished in the purgatory of Endangered Species Act candidacy without receiving the benefit of the law’s protections. Biological data demonstrate the species has not made a recovery and continues to decline. Threats to the plover include urban sprawl, agriculture, escalating oil and gas development, and harm to prairie dogs, which provide important plover breeding habitat.
“We challenged the Bush administrations’ attempt to sweep aside wildlife protections and charge ahead with more and faster oil and gas drilling throughout the Intermountain West,” added Erik Molvar, Wildlife biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance of Laramie, Wyoming. “The result has been a disaster for wildlife on our public lands, and it’s high time to rein in the drilling free-for-all. Protecting the mountain plover under the Endangered Species Act is necessary to restore the needed balance.”
The breeding range of the plover in the U.S. was once expansive, including larger areas of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Recent estimates indicate between 5,000 and 11,000 Plovers remain today — an alarmingly small number for a species whose lifespan is only two years long on average. The bird is considered extinct in North and South Dakota and critically imperiled in Nebraska and Kansas.
Conversion of native grassland to cropland has also forced the plover to nest in agricultural fields, leaving nests vulnerable to destruction by machinery.
“The Endangered Species Act protects landowners from being penalized when they help conserve species,” added McCain. “We support increased incentives to encourage farmers to take steps to help conserve plovers.”