Inaction By The Federal Government Imperils Shorebird

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(12/04/1996) - Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for failing to protect habitat for the critically imperiled Great Lakes population of piping plovers, a failure which they assert violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Defenders believes that the populations could disappear from the Great Lakes region without additional protections.

"Since the initial ESA listing of Great Lakes piping plover in 1985, the FWS has failed to halt the decline of plover habitat, which also contains many other species," declares Defenders' President Rodger Schlickeisen. "We hope that this lawsuit will provide the spark that jumpstarts the FWS into action as required by the ESA."

Section 4(a)(3) of the Endangered Species Act requires the FWS to designate "critical habitat" for a species upon its listing as endangered or threatened. The FWS can choose not to designate a species' critical habitat in only limited circumstances.

With the piping plover, however, the FWS has already determined that habitat protection is absolutely vital to the recovery of the species. Therefore, the Defenders lawsuit calls on the FWS to designate critical habitat for the piping plover, which was listed over a decade ago.

"All we want is for the federal government to obey the law and uphold the central goal of recovery under the ESA," says Bill Snape, Defenders's legal director. "Critical habitat designation ensures that federal agency actions, such as beach dredging and road building, do not jeopardize the existence of the piping plover."

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus), named for its flute- like "peep-lo" song, is a small, migratory shorebird with a sand- colored upper body, white undersides and orange legs. The Great Lakes birds are listed as "endangered" on their breeding grounds and "threatened" (a less stringent designation) on their wintering grounds. Also listed as threatened are the Atlantic piping plover population, which is estimated at 900 birds in the U.S. and Canada, and the Great Plains population, which numbers roughly 1,500 birds in both countries.

Historically, several hundred piping plovers bred throughout the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada. However, only 23 pairs nested in northern Michigan's Great Lakes last summer. Lakeshore development, predation and increasing human use of the Great Lakes beaches - as well as commercial and recreational development and dredging operations along the Gulf Coast tidal flats where they winter - jeopardize the population's survival.

Furthermore, the birds are highly sensitive to disruptions, and its camouflaged plumage (once an advantage for evading predators) prevents people from seeing them. People on foot or in a vehicle cause adult birds to abandon their nests or crush adults, chicks or eggs in the sand.

Although some steps have been taken to protect nesting Great Lakes birds from predators and reduce human disturbance, Defenders contends that these few steps have not been enough to expedite the population's recovery, both in its breeding and winter ranges.

The FWS' 1988 recovery plan for the Great Lakes-Northern Great Plains plover cited critical habitat designation as a major priority and recommended solutions to the problems plaguing this small, sprightly shorebird. The plan called for restricting human and vehicular access to beaches where plovers are nesting and for modifying or prohibiting activities that impair the birds' reproductive success.

The federal recovery goal for the Great Lakes population is 150 adult pairs - 100 in Michigan, 50 in Wisconsin and the rest at other Great Lakes sites.

"Rather than moving the bird's recovery forward, the federal government's continued failure to designate the bird's critical habitat could instead silence the melodious song of the piping plover forever," concludes Schlickeisen.

Founded in 1947, Defenders of Wildlife is a nonprofit organization with more than 180,000 members nationwide. Long known for leadership on endangered species issues and new approaches to wildlife conservation, Defenders' programs focus on what scientists consider two of the most serious environmental threats to the planet: the accelerating rate of species extinction and associated loss of biological diversity and habitat alteration and destruction.

Defenders is represented in this lawsuit by Walter Kuhlmann, who is with the law firm of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Contact(s):

Bill Snape, 202-682-9400 x232 (Legal)
Joan Moody, 202-682-9400 x216 (Media)