Mountain Plover: An Inconspicuous Shorebird That Breeds, Nests and Winters Across Some of the Toughest Places in the Intermountain West

The Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus) is a species that inhabits cold, xeric-shrub landscapes of the western United States. The species is a medium-sized, drably marked, inconspicuous shorebird fostering the nickname “Prairie Ghost” amongst ornithologists and birding adventurers. The Intermountain West is considered critical to supporting hemispheric populations by supporting several important breeding areas for this species (IWJV 2013 Implementation Plan, Shorebird Chapter).

Above photo: Mountain Plover adult in Carbon County, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Fritz L. Knopf.

First collected by John Kirk Townsend along the Sweetwater River of Wyoming in 1834, only a few western frontier references note the species and never as “abundant”. Historically, plovers were reported across North American western prairies in areas of intensive grazing by bison (Bison bison) and prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.). Steep declines in population size have been reported across their range since 1966, presumably stemming from loss of grassland habitats to agriculture and declining prairie dog populations. Within the Great Plains, the Mountain Plover is classified as threatened; a species of interest, concern or need; or sensitive in the US; and endangered in Canada. The species in considered as highly imperiled in the US and Canadian Shorebird Conservation Plans; a species of global conservation in the American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society’s 2007 Watch List, and IUCN Red List.

Mountain Plover chicks wearing radio transmitter used to determine survival or causes of mortality in eastern Colorado.

The species is considered to be an ‘extremist’ in regards to its habitat preferences. It chooses to reside in areas predominately managed by public agencies and highly disturbed by fire, on land grazed by domestic livestock, on lands managed by public agencies and private entities, and on privately owned agricultural lands. Over half of the continental population use the eastern plains of Colorado for breeding activities. Smaller, more isolated breeding areas occur throughout the southwestern corner of Nebraska, eastern Wyoming and Montana, and the Intermountain West (see U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan).

Information on nesting ecology suggests that agricultural practices are not causing significant declines in the populations. Nests on agricultural fields have lower predation risks and are successful in hatching. More recent efforts have addressed the survival of chicks from the time they leave the nest to fledging or first migration to the winter areas. In Colorado, the efforts have focused on how habitats – grassland, grassland with prairie dogs, and agricultural fields - support the recruitment of chicks into the population. While areas containing prairie dogs have been suggested to support mountain plover breeding activity, information suggests that predation of chicks can be relatively high, however, highly variable between years likely due to the dynamic nature of prairie dog activity.

The Intermountain West also serves as an important region in supporting the wintering populations of Mountain Plovers particularly the southern extent of the Intermountain West (U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan). Little is known about how Mountain Plovers use this landscape during the wintering period. It has been suggested that less than a third of the continental population winters in Imperial Valley, California with small, more disperse populations across the Intermountain West region. The species favors agricultural fields in the Imperial Valley that have been recently tilled or harvested followed by either burning or grazing by domestic livestock. The goals of the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan to maintain and enhance habitat for Mountain Plovers include: 1) improve the existing information about Mountain Plovers in the Intermountain West, and 2) study the impacts of management of agricultural lands on plover wintering ecology in the Intermountain West.

Individuals participating in the Mountain Plover Festival in Karval, Colorado talking to local landowner Russell Davis.

Conservation of the Mountain Plover will require concerted efforts across their breeding and wintering areas. Given private entities manage a sizeable portion of the western prairies including the Intermountain West region, conservation efforts for Mountain Plovers must include partnerships with private landowners and the organizations supporting this livelihood across this landscape. One of the most notable includes the Karval Community Alliance; a nonprofit private, agricultural landowner community-based organization. This community hosts the annual Mountain Plover Festival, birding tours, and supports research activities on their lands. The Karval community is a prime example of ‘bridging the gap’ between private landowner interests and conservation efforts in a collaborative-based partnership. Effective conservation of the Mountain Plover should include these types of concerted outreach efforts that not only benefit Mountain Plovers but also our western prairies.


Read more articles from the Fall 2014 e-Newsletter:

Partners Step Up to Conserve Wetlands in the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington By Terry Mansfield, IWJV Washington State Conservation Partnership Coordinator

Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust: Conserving Land for People and Birds By Cecilia Rosacker McCord, Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust

Putting Funding for Habitat Work in a National Context for Smarter Results By Ali Duvall, IWJV Staff

Our Ranch, Our Kids and Our Conservation Mission By Sharon O’Toole, Ladder Livestock Company

Mountain Plover: An Inconspicuous Shorebird That Breeds, Nests and Winters Across Some of the Toughest Places in the Intermountain West By Victoria Dreitz, Avian Science Center Director

New Partner Biologists Boosts Conservation Delivery Capabilities in Southern Oregon By Jim Stutzman, IWJV Staff