FWS logo FWS Banner image
Mountain-Prairie Region


Piping Plover

Piping Plover on nest imagepiping plover image

Questions and Answers

About the

Northern Great Plains Population of Piping Plover

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is designating critical habitat in parts of Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska for the northern Great Plains breeding population of piping plover, an imperiled shorebird.

Designated areas of critical habitat include prairie alkali wetlands and surrounding shoreline; river channels and associated sandbars and islands; and reservoirs and inland lakes and their sparsely vegetated shorelines, peninsulas, and islands. These areas provide primary courtship, nesting, foraging, sheltering, brood-rearing and dispersal habitat for piping plovers.

Following are some frequently asked questions about the piping plover.

What is a piping plover?

The piping plover is a small migratory shorebird about seven inches (18 cm) long with a wingspan of about 15 inches (38 cm). Adults have sand-colored upper parts and white undersides. During the breeding season, piping plovers have single dark bands across both the breast and forehead and the legs are bright orange. Plumage and leg color help distinguish this bird from other plovers.

What is the range of the piping plover?

Historically, piping plovers bred across three geographic regions which include the Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland to North Carolina; the Northern Great Plains from Alberta to Manitoba and south to Nebraska; and the Great Lakes. Piping plovers winter along the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and in the Bahamas and West Indies. Although drastically reduced, remnant populations occur throughout their historic range.

What kinds of habitats does the piping plover need?

Generally, piping plovers prefer bare sand, gravel, or cobble beaches for breeding and nesting. In the northern Great Plains, breeding and nesting sites are found on river sandbars and islands, inland lakes (Lake of the Woods), and reservoir and alkali lake shorelines. Breeding sites on the Atlantic coast are found on coastal beaches and on the Great Lakes on lake beaches in Michigan and Wisconsin. During the winter, piping plovers use algal, mud, and sand flats along the Gulf Coast.

Why are piping plover populations declining? What are the threats to the piping plover?


Habitat destruction or degradation and poor breeding success due to predation are major reasons for the population declines. Construction and operations of reservoirs on the Missouri River and other river systems have resulted in a loss of sandbar habitat. Plovers using the remaining sandbars on the river are susceptible to predation, direct disturbance by people, and water fluctuations as the result of dam operations. Predation is a major factor affecting the birds as changes in the landscape have increased predator populations particularly raptors and mammals.

What is being done to protect the piping plover?

A variety of protection measures are implemented as prescribed in recovery plans, and include:

Listing: The northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast breeding populations of piping plover are listed as threatened while the Great Lakes breeding population is listed as endangered. All piping plovers on the wintering grounds are listed as threatened.

Recovery Plans: The Service developed recovery plans that describe actions that need to be taken to help the bird survive and recover. Recovery plans currently exist for all three areas of the breeding range. These recovery plans are in various stages of revision.

Research: Several cooperative research groups have been set up among Federal and State agencies, university and private research centers, and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Studies are being conducted to estimate numbers, evaluate reproductive success, monitor long-term changes in populations, and determine where plovers breed and winter. Other studies have addressed the effectiveness of captive rearing efforts. The effectiveness of predator enclosures and habitat manipulations have also been evaluated.

Management and Habitat Protection: Measures to ensure successful nesting are conducted each year, including controlling human access to certain nesting areas on rivers and reservoirs, monitoring nesting activity, and protecting nests, eggs and young birds from predators. This requires intensive management efforts and significant participation by the Corps of Engineers, the Service, and Tribal staff. The Service also works with the Corps of Engineers to manage Missouri River water flows to maintain sandbars and other habitat for the plover.

Public Education: All states, the Nature Conservancy, the Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and zoos are all involved in public outreach and education, including media spots, brochures, public television documentary kiosks at public facilities, and public service announcements. For example, the Corps of Engineers provides programs at campgrounds, and installs informative signs on threatened and endangered species at boat ramps. The Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership in Nebraska has an adopt-a-colony program on the lower Platte River, as well as an extensive outreach program including presentations, brochures, and articles. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy work with private landowners in North Dakota and Montana to carry out management actions on prairie alkali lakes.

What are the recovery goals for the piping plover?

Recovery goals for the northern Great Plains breeding population of piping plovers include sustaining 2,300 pairs of birds for at least 15 years; meeting recovery objectives for birds in prairie Canada; and providing long term protection of essential breeding and wintering habitat

What protection does the piping plover currently receive as a listed species?

The ESA prohibits the import, export, or interstate or foreign sale of protected animals and plants without a special permit. It also makes "take" illegal - forbidding the killing, harming, harassing, possessing, or removing of protected animals from the wild. Federal agencies must consult with the Service to conserve listed species and ensure that any activity they fund, authorize, or carry out will not jeopardize the continued survival and recovery of a listed species. This is referred to as a Section 7 consultation process.

Permits may be issued by the Service for activities that are otherwise prohibited under the Act, if these activities are for scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species, or for "take" that is incidental to otherwise lawful activities.

In addition, the ESA requires that Federal agencies not only implement actions to prevent further loss of a species, but also pursue actions to recover species to the point where they no longer require protection and can be de-listed.

Why is critical habitat being designated for the piping plover?

Section 4(a)(3) of the ESA states that when a species is added to the endangered species list, we must designate critical habitat "to the maximum extent prudent." The 1986 final listing rule for the northern Great Plains breeding population piping plover did not include a critical habitat designation.

In December 1996, Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and the Service for failing to designate critical habitat for the piping plover. As a result of the lawsuit, the court has ordered the Service to publish a proposed critical habitat designation for the breeding population of piping plovers in the northern Great Plains by May 31, 2001 with a final rule by March 15, 2002 which was extended to August 19, 2002.

The final critical habitat designation for the Great Lakes population was published on May 7, 2001 and for the wintering population on July 5, 2001.

What is critical habitat?

Critical habitat is a term used in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that refers to specific geographic areas that contain habitat features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. These areas may require special management considerations or protection for the species.

What is the purpose of designating critical habitat?

Designating critical habitat is a tool to identify areas that are important to the recovery of a listed species. It is also a tool used to notify Federal agencies of areas that must be given special consideration when they are planning, implementing, or funding activities. Federal agencies are required to consult with the Service on actions they carry out, authorize, fund, or permit, that may affect critical habitat. A critical habitat designation has no effect when a Federal agency is not involved. For example, a landowner undertaking a project on private land that involves no Federal funding or permit has no additional responsibilities if his property falls within critical habitat boundaries.

Do listed species in critical habitat areas receive more protection?

A critical habitat designation does not set up a preserve or refuge. It only affects activities with Federal involvement, such as Federal funding or a Federal permit. Listed species and their habitats are protected by the ESA whether or not they are in areas designated as critical habitat.

Designation of critical habitat can help focus conservation activities for a listed species by identifying areas that contain the physical and biological features that are essential for the conservation of that species. Critical habitat also alerts the public as well as land management agencies to the importance of these areas.

How does the Service determine which areas to designate as critical habitat?

Biologists consider physical and biological habitat features needed for life and successful reproduction of the species. Habitat areas essential for piping plover conservation are those that provide the primary biological needs of courtship, nesting, foraging, sheltering, brood-rearing, and migration.

Are all areas within the proposed piping plover critical habitat boundaries considered critical habitat?

No. For example, currently constructed mainstem dam structures, buildings, marinas, boat ramps, bank stabilization and breakwater structures, row cropped or plowed agricultural areas, mines, and roads would not be considered critical habitat. Due to the time limitations of the court order, we could not provide maps with enough detail to exclude all areas that did not contain the habitat features necessary to be described critical habitat.

Do Federal agencies have to consult with the Service outside critical habitat areas?

Even when there is not critical habitat designation, Federal agencies must consult with the Service, if an action that they fund, or authorize, or permit may adversely affect listed species.

Will this designation of critical habitat affect Federal agencies that undertake, permit or fund projects?

Because Federal agencies are already required to consult on actions that may affect piping plovers, we anticipate little or no additional regulatory burden will be placed on Federal agencies as a result of a designation of critical habitat.

How will this critical habitat designation for piping plover affect use of my personal property? Will this result in any taking of my property?

The designation of critical habitat on privately-owned land does not mean the government wants to acquire or control the land. Activities on private lands that do not require Federal permits or funding are not affected by a critical habitat designation. Critical habitat does not require landowners to carry out any special management actions or restrict the use of the land. However, the Act already prohibits any individual from engaging in unauthorized activities that will actually harm listed species.

If a landowner needs a Federal permit or receives Federal funding for a specific activity, the agency responsible for issuing the permit or providing the funds would consult with the Service to determine how the action may affect the piping plover or its designated critical habitat. We will work with the Federal agency and private landowner to modify the project to minimize the impacts.

How are State lands affected by the critical habitat designation for the piping plover?

Non-Federal activities are not affected by critical habitat designation. Designation of critical habitat requires Federal agencies to review activities they fund, authorize, or carry out, to assess the likely effects of the activities on critical habitat.

What impact will critical habitat designation have on recreational uses of the reservoirs, rivers and lakes?

If beach-side recreation affects piping plover breeding activities, the Service will work with the responsible State, Tribal or Federal agency to protect potential breeding sites while having as minimal effect as possible on humanís enjoyment of the areas. The Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with States and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been restricting recreational use of certain plover nesting areas on the Missouri River and associated reservoirs for many years. Nesting sites are posted and roped off to protect nesting birds. These restrictions affect a very small percentage of available recreational areas.

Where can I get more information on the piping plover and critical habitat?

For more information, visit our web site at http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/species/birds/pipingplover. You may also telephone the following Service Field Offices:

Pierre, South Dakota: 605-224-8693 ext. 32

Bismarck, North Dakota: 701-355-8506

Billings, Montana: 406-247-7366

Grand Island, Nebraska: 308-382-6468 ext. 25

Bloomington, Minnesota: 612-725-3548 ext. 206

Updated as of August 29, 2002

Birds in the Mountain Prairie Region  |  FWS Mountain-Prairie Region Web Site

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Home Page | Department of the Interior  | USA.gov  | About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  | Accessibility  | Privacy  | Notices  | Disclaimer  | FOIA