The piping plover, a two-ounce shorebird of open beaches, alkali flats, and sandy areas, breeds along the Atlantic coast from southern Canada to North Carolina; along major rivers and wetlands in the northern Great Plains from southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba through Nebraska; and along portions of the western Great Lakes. Most piping plovers winter along the coastal beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from the Carolinas to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Fewer than 2,800 breeding pairs of piping plovers were reported in the U.S. and Canada in 1995. About half of these were in the Great Plains region, and most of the rest were along the Atlantic Coast. Just a few dozen birds were observed on the beaches of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes population is classified as endangered, while the other two populations are classed as threatened.
On rivers, piping plovers use beaches, sand flats, and drained floodplains where vegetative cover is less than 20%. Widespread river dams throughout the Great Plains has hurt this species by curtailing the scouring of sandbars in spring and limiting formation of new sandbars. In 1994 a draft recovery plan recommended the status of the Great Plains population of the piping plover be changed from threatened to endangered. This plan is being rewritten and has not yet been released to the public.
Little attention was paid to the piping plover in Montana until its listing in 1985, although prior breeding records existed from Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge near Malta and the Fort Peck Dam area. Work on this species is coordinated by the Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee, a group led by the USFWS in cooperation with several state and federal agencies and a host of interested birders, many affiliated with Montana Audubon Society chapters.
Nesting habitat in Montana is primarily unvegetated sand-pebble beaches or islands in freshwater and saline wetlands and shorelines and exposed beds of larger reservoirs and rivers in the north-central and eastern portions of the state. Although Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge and nearby wetlands account for almost 80% of the piping plover production in Montana, nesting also occurs on the Missouri River below Fort Peck, on the C.M. Russell and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuges, and at Alkali Lake on the Blackfeet Reservation. Annual nesting site surveys have been conducted since 1987 and, as more people have participated, new sites have been checked every year.
Abundant spring rainfall and high water reduced piping plover nesting habitat in Montana in 1994 and 1995. In 1995, 62 pairs of piping plovers were observed (exceeding the recovery objective of 60 nesting pairs for the third consecutive year); the total of 169 adults recorded was the second lowest number since 1987. Seventeen active nests produced only 20 young, the second poorest production since the surveys began.
Efforts underway to help the piping plover in Montana include: (1) timing spring releases from Fort Peck Dam to more closely mirror the behavior of a natural river (i.e., reduced flows during the nesting period); (2) reducing human, dog, and vehicle disturbance during nesting; (3) informing the public about plover biology and life requirements; and (4) minimizing predation (especially from gulls) by installing temporary, large-mesh cages over the nests. On the Blackfeet Reservation, gravel is being added to a plover area in an attempt to enhance the ability of a beach to carry invertebrates on which plovers feed.
An international piping plover survey involving 26 states, three Canadian provinces, seven countries, and more than 1,000 volunteers was undertaken in 1991. The survey is scheduled to be repeated and expanded in 1996 and every five years thereafter. The 1996 survey will include a two-week count in June and another two-week count in winter.