Critical Habitat for Snowy Plover May More Than Double Under New Proposal

Written by American Bird Conservancy

Under a new proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), land designated as Critical Habitat for the Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover, a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act, may dramatically increase. If the current proposal is fully implemented, the total number of acres designated as Critical Habitat would more than double.

Total designated Critical Habitat would increase from 12,145 acres to 28,261 acres, while individual units would increase from 32 to 68. Three West Coast states would be affected – California would have the biggest increase (from 7,477 acres to 16,777 acres) followed by Washington (from 2,526 acres to 6,265 acres) and Oregon (from 2,147 acres to 5,219 acres).

Of the total acreage, 9,040 acres are on federal lands; 12,740 acres are owned by states or local agencies; and 6,145 acres are located on private lands. In addition, 336 acres are tribal lands in Washington. 

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is hopeful that the new Critical Habitat will help the plovers, but unfortunately feral cats don’t recognize such designations, so we are going to need additional measures to prevent cat predation in addition to this habitat protection,” said ABC Vice President Mike Parr. For example, feral cats at Elkhorn Slough in Monterey, California are known to take adult Snowy Plovers, chicks, and eggs.

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Snowy Plover. © Greg Lavaty

The Snowy Plover is a small shorebird with pale brown to gray upper parts, gray to black legs and bill, and dark patches on the forehead, behind the eyes, and on either side of the upper breast. The Pacific Coast population breeds primarily on coastal beaches from southern Washington to southern Baja California, Mexico.

The proposal is the result of a lawsuit and two additional factors — the anticipated adverse effects of rising sea levels resulting from climate change that will significantly impact the bird, and a new policy direction for FWS that stresses the role that unoccupied habitat can provide for the conservation of the species.

In 1999, FWS designated about 19,500 acres as critical habitat, however in 2005, as a result of a lawsuit by developers, that number was reduced to 12,145 acres. This proposal follows another lawsuit from an environmental group seeking greater protections for the bird.

Critical Habitat is a provision under the Endangered Species Act that identifies geographic areas containing features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species, and which may require special management considerations or protection. Designation of Critical Habitat does not affect land ownership, establish a refuge or preserve and has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.

The Snowy Plover was listed as threatened in 1991, and biologists estimate that no more than 2,270 Snowy Plovers breed along the Pacific Coast of the United States, with approximately an equal number breeding on the west coast of Baja California. The largest number of breeding birds occurs south of San Francisco Bay to southern Baja. The species’ decline has been attributed to loss of nesting habitat, human disturbance, encroachment of European beach grass on nesting grounds, and predation. The Pacific Coast population of the Western Snowy Plover was listed as a “distinct population segment,” on March 5, 1993.

FWS is seeking comments and information on all aspects of this proposed rule and will accept comments and information until May 23, 2011. Comments and information can be submitted electronically to www.regulations.gov. In the box that reads “Enter Keyword or ID,” enter the Docket number for this finding, which is FWS-R8-ES-2010-0070. Check the box that reads “Open for Comment/Submission,” and then click the Search button. You will see an icon that reads “Submit a Comment.” Please ensure that you have found the correct rulemaking before submitting your comment.

If submitting comments by hard copy or hand delivery, please send them to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS–R8–ES–2010-0070, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222, Arlington, VA 22203.

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American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization which conserves native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.

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