Conserving the Nature of America

News Release

Service to Review Status of Western Snowy Plover

March 22, 2004


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

Public comments received until 5 p.m. May 20

Questions & Answers

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it will conduct an in-depth look at the status of the Pacific Coast population of the western snowy plover. The study – known as a “12-month status review” – will examine whether the population of western snowy plovers that breeds in coastal areas in California, Oregon and Washington should retain its current classification as a threatened species.

The Pacific Coast population of the western snowy plover is classified as a “distinct population segment” (DPS) under the Endangered Species Act. As such, this population is considered separate from populations that nest in inland areas from Nevada and Utah to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Today’s action completes an initial review – known as a “90-day finding” – of two petitions filed in July 2002 and May 2003, respectively, by the Surf-Ocean Beach Commission of Lompoc, CA, and the City of Morro Bay, CA, seeking to delist the Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover.

The Service will now conduct a comprehensive review to determine whether a change in the classification of the species is warranted. Because a status review is also required for the five-year review of listed species under the Endangered Species Act, the Service will prepare these two reviews simultaneously.

Today’s finding does not affect other ongoing Service activities related to the protection and management of the Pacific Coast DPS of the western snowy plover, nor does it constitute a decision to delist the species. The reviews will determine whether or not a change is warranted in the species’ Federal classification, such as a change in classification from threatened to endangered, a determination that the species no longer needs protection and should be delisted, a determination that the classification should remain the same, or a change in DPS designation. Such a determination would not automatically result in a change in classification. Any change would require a separate formal rule-making process, including public review and comment, as defined in section 4(a) of the Endangered Species Act. No change in classification would occur until the completion of that process.

The Service released a draft recovery plan for the western snowy plover in May 2001 that establishes recovery criteria and outlines actions that are needed to help conserve and recover the species. The Service expects to release a final recovery plan later this year. Under a 2003 Federal court order, the Service is also revising critical habitat for the western snowy plover. The proposed new critical habitat is expected to be made public in late 2004.

To ensure that the status review is comprehensive and based on the best available science, the Service is opening a 60-day public-comment period to solicit information and data regarding the species. Comments, material, information, or questions concerning this petition and finding should be sent to the Field Supervisor, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, California 95825-1846. Comments and information should be submitted by 5 p.m. Thursday, May 20, 2004.

The petitions contend that the Pacific Coast population of the western snowy plover does not qualify either as a DPS or as a threatened species. The petitioners’ primary support for their position is an unpublished 2001 master’s thesis in which the researcher failed to find significant genetic differentiation between Pacific Coast plovers and interior plovers.

The Service’s original determination of the distinctiveness of the Pacific Coast western snowy plover was based on scientific information that showed that coastal plovers breed in different areas than inland plovers. The Service’s Distinct Vertebrate Population Segment Policy, published in 1996, stipulates that a vertebrate population segment must be both discrete and significant to qualify for consideration for listing under the Act. As such, the Service considers information on behavior, distribution, ecology and – if available – genetic data in making a determination of whether a population is discrete and significant.

The Service’s DPS policy states that all DPS listings made prior to the policy will be reevaluated on a case-by-case basis as recommendations are made to change the listing. In the 12-month status review, the Service will reevaluate whether the species still qualifies as a DPS under the 1996 policy. If it does, the Service will also consider whether it continues to meet the definition of a threatened species.

A shorebird, the western snowy plover is distinguished from other plovers by its small size, pale brown upper parts, dark patches on either side of the upper breast, and dark gray to blackish legs. Snowy plovers weigh between 1.2 and 2 ounces. They are generally 5 to 7 inches long. The Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover breeds primarily on coastal beaches from southern Washington to southern Baja California, Mexico.

At of the end of 2003, biologists had counted about 1,600 adult snowy plovers along the Pacific Coast of the United States. They believe a roughly equal number breed on the west coast of Baja California. The largest number of breeding birds occurs from south of San Francisco Bay to southern Baja.

The decline of the species has been attributed to loss of nesting habitat, human disturbance, encroachment of European beach grass on nesting grounds, and predation. The species was listed as threatened in 1993, and the Service designated critical habitat in 1999.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 544 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 63 Fish and Wildlife Management offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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