Secretive bird claims spotlight
Casper – On March 12, three ag agencies whose territories span from New Mexico to Wyoming partnered to intervene in yet another lawsuit that could have a dramatic impact on the management of agricultural lands in the West.
The Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) have joined together with Colorado attorney Kent Holsinger to intervene in a lawsuit brought by Forest Guardians and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in 2006 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
This particular lawsuit focuses on a small bird known as the mountain plover, whose summer range is from New Mexico up through Wyoming and even into Montana.
“The Petroleum Association had intervened earlier, and we had looked into it, but at the time we were in the process of intervening in the sage grouse lawsuit and that was our priority,” says WSGA Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. Now that the sage grouse issue is halted for the moment, he says the plover has come back into the spotlight.
“The interesting thing is the plover is a species that thrives in areas that are heavily grazed or disturbed,” he notes. “It’s not a sagebrush obligate species. The plover would have different implications than the sage grouse or the pygmy rabbit, but nevertheless it would restrict what could be done on private and public lands.”
“This is a bird of disturbance, and it likes bare ground and it’s very visual,” says Wyoming FWS biologist Pat Deibert. “It wants to see everything that’s going on around it, and it rarely nests in vegetation taller than four inches.”
She says the plover is often associated with prairie dog towns and areas with little vegetation. “I’ve seen them on windswept, sparse plains,” she says. Mountain plover are found throughout Wyoming, except for mountain areas. “They’re a secretive little plains bird, and most people would mistake them for a killdeer,” she adds.
In 2003 the environmentalists challenged a decision by the FWS that said listing the mountain plover under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was not warranted. According to attorney Holsinger, the case was filed in southern California’s Ninth Circuit, a court often chosen by environmentalist groups.
“We determined the species did not warrant listing because it was found in greater abundance in agricultural fields than we thought,” says Deibert. A part of the bird’s habitat is tilled ag land, so she says a concern was that the birds would set up a nest only to have it plowed under during field work.
“A program was started to mark the nests, after which the farmer could go around them, and that helps the birds in productivity on ag lands,” she says. “That was a measure taken by the agriculture industry that led us to decide the species did not warrant listing.”
“When we made the ‘not warranted’ finding, the mountain plover did not meet our definition for listing,” she notes. “The estimates for Wyoming came in a lot higher than was originally thought, and we do already provide language for these birds indicating that landowners need to take care to minimize disturbance to prairie dog towns when the birds are nesting.”
Deibert says it’s really hard to find the mountain plovers unless you know what you’re looking for. “You’ll never see them because they’ll leave their nests when you’re still several hundred yards away and finding their nests is really hard. In order to locate one you have to see the mother or father get off it and fly away.”
Although the bird seems to tolerate disturbance, biologists aren’t yet sure how much it affects their productivity. “In areas where there’s constant activity, such as drilling for oil and gas, we don’t know how frequently they’re successfully reproducing,” she says.
To help find that out, United States Geologic Survey Ecologist Natasha Kotliar has been working on a BLM-funded project that was in pilot stages last summer. “They’re interested in the effects of energy development on mountain plover, so we’re working on areas to the north and south of Wamsutter that have a gradient of well densities and roads.”
She says they are going to get the study in place this summer, which will include monitoring the birds’ density and habitat use among the variations in well and road densities.
“They’re hard birds to sample, so we spent a lot of time on methodology and study design to make sure we’d get a good sample,” she says. “There are quite a few plover in that area.”
Kotliar says one thing the BLM is interested in finding through the study is how effective their lease stipulations – such as waiting to put in well pads until after the breeding season and how much traffic is allowed on roads – are in minimizing disturbance to the birds.
“They’re somewhat tolerant of disturbance,” says Kotliar of the birds, “But there may be some point in which they can’t tolerate it and a threshold where disturbance does become a problem.”
One concern for the mountain plover that is out of Wyoming’s control is the birds’ exposure to contaminants in their winter range – California. “The birds don’t usually show up in Wyoming until around April,” says Deibert. “The concern is that there’s a lot of stress on the females laying their clutches if they’ve been exposed to contaminants. There are links between the high levels of contaminants we find in them and how those affect their ability to reproduce and get through migration to and from California.”
“Until we put the mountain plover on our list, people didn’t even know where they were,” comments Deibert. “Colorado was thought to be their stronghold, but we found their range is shared between Wyoming and Colorado and even up into Montana.”
“The status in the lawsuit right now is that the parties are arguing over what will or will not be included in the administrative record in the case, and that should be resolved by the end of the month,” says Holsinger. “Sometime after that the court will hear motions for summary judgment in the case.”
As evidence for his side of the case, he says there are “tremendous conservation efforts” already in place for mountain plover, from federal lands to voluntary private conservation efforts between landowners and Farm Bureau and bird conservation groups. “There are tremendous amounts of good things going on for the mountain plover and evidence showing it shouldn’t be listed,” he says.
According to the memorandum in support of intervention, “A listing of the mountain plover as threatened or endangered under the ESA would harm the Intervenor-Applicants by impairing existing conservation efforts, in which some of the Intervenor-Applicants’ members are participants. The ESA creates disincentives to landowners and industry, often restricting the ability to manage for species.”
“History shows that an ESA listing is bad not only for the landowner, but also for the mountain plover itself,” says Holsinger. “The ESA has had less than one percent of listed species ever recovered. The ESA just adds layer after layer of bureaucracy that gets in the way of good management and stewardship.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.