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State of the Birds Report

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Farmers Make Room for Mountain Plovers

Photo by Larry Snyder, Nebraska

  Grassland Easements:
Conserving Nesting Habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region

The Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains may be known as America's "Duck Factory," but it's also a critical region for breeding grassland birds. Much of that breeding occurs on grasslands on national wildlife refuges in the Dakotas and Montana managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency is also protecting grassland habitat on private lands via conservation easements.

Since 1989, the USFWS has purchased more than 1.2 million acres of grassland easements from landowners in the Prairie Pothole Region. Sellers receive a payment in exchange for agreeing to keep their land in permanent grass cover. Grazing is allowed on grassland easements, however landowners agree to delay haying until after July 15 to avoid disturbing ground-nesting birds.


At a time when grassland losses are outpacing the rate of grassland conservation (it is estimated that between 105,000 and 340,000 acres of grasslands are converted to croplands each year in the Prairie Pothole Region), these grassland easements protect vital nesting habitat for grassland-nesting birds, such as Dickcissel and Upland Sandpiper, in perpetuity.

  Image: Grassland by Jim Ringelman   

American prairie landscapes have undergone tremendous changes—from massive conversions of grass into croplands and development to the widespread eradication of prairie dogs. These changes have caused steep population declines for many bird species, including the Mountain Plover, which dropped to the point of being proposed for listing as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But farmers in Colorado and Nebraska took voluntary action to make room for nesting Mountain Plovers in their crop fields, and the proposed listing was removed.

Mountain Plovers, despite their name, are prairie birds. They depend on bare ground for nesting, such as recently burned shortgrass prairie or prairie dog towns. Due to habitat loss, the Mountain Plover population declined by around 66% over the past 25 years. This decline inspired government agencies, private landowners, and nonprofit organizations to work together to protect Mountain Plovers.

More than 50% of remaining Mountain Plovers breed in eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska, so conservation efforts focused there. In 2003, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Farm Bureau, and the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory joined forces to form the Prairie Partners Mountain Plover Nest Conservation Program. A parallel conservation effort in the neighboring state, Nebraska Prairie Partners, formed via a partnership between the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

In this region dominated by agricultural production and private ownership, the program sought to identify plover nests on farmlands. At first, many landowners were skeptical of allowing nest surveys on their land, since Mountain Plovers were proposed for Endangered Species Act listing in 1993. But over time, landowners developed a strong sense of pride and ownership about plovers nesting on their land.

The programs succeeded because the teams demonstrated the compatibility of nesting plovers with working lands. Once a nest was marked with brightly colored stakes, a farmer just needed to till around that small patch by inches to protect the nest, without hindering crop production.

Over the past 10 years, the program has partnered with nearly 250 private landowners and located and protected more than 1,000 Mountain Plover nests, including 672 nests in Nebraska. (Before the project began, experts expected to find just a few plovers nesting in Nebraska.) Eventually the project evolved into a landowner-driven program, with 42% of known plover nests in Nebraska located and marked by landowners last year. A project milestone occurred in 2008, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Mountain Plover from consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Landowners are now joining other conservation efforts, such as a program to install nesting platforms for Ferruginous Hawks on private lands.

A biologist from Nebraska Prairie Partners
shows a local landowner the radio transmitter
that will be used to track Mountain Plovers
and evaluate their habitat use and survival
rates. Biologists have helped farmers with
plover-friendly practices such as tilling around
nests in crop fields. In the past decade, 672
Mountain Plover nests have been located
and protected on Nebraska farms.
Photo by Seth Gallagher.

Robust programmatic support from private, state, and federal partners—and financial support from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, state wildlife grants for Colorado and Nebraska, and the USFWS Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act—are crucial to Mountain Plover nest conservation over the long term. But the program's success stems from the willingness of private landowners and state agricultural groups (such as the Colorado Farm Bureau) to become directly involved in Mountain Plover conservation.

The program is a model for bird conservation on private lands: a deep understanding of species habitat requirements—combined with productive partnerships with private landowners—leads to sustainable, cooperative conservation practices.

Mountain Plover chicks in nest by Danny Martin, Colorado 


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