Rare sighting: Ranchers and farmers join efforts to save a bird

Ken Morgan knows it isn't often that significant conservation deals begin with dozens of cups of coffee sipped around kitchen tables in farm country.

But with the possibility of yet another species being added to the federal protected list, biologist Morgan asked a smattering of farmers to consider an unusual proposition: Identify, and then acknowledge that endangered mountain plovers nest on their land.

In a surprising move of cooperation, the overall-clad agrarians agreed, even if it meant environmentalists could someday use the information against them to justify increased regulation of their land as plover habitat.

In this litigious era when the fate of more and more species is being decided in courtrooms, the idea of farmers and ranchers willingly divulging the location of rare animals on the back 40 might seem counterintuitive.

"Property owners recognized they were taking a gamble, but they also knew the best way to prevent the listing of plovers is to voluntarily get involved with conserving them," notes Mr. Morgan, a specialist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Kitchen-table diplomacy

When Morgan first approached the ranchers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was giving serious consideration to giving migratory plovers special protected status under the Endangered Species Act.

But the federal department changed its mind last month, and now the new cooperation between ranchers and state biologists in Colorado is being held up by the Bush administration as an example of how to protect species without federal intervention.

Mary Henry, the Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant regional director, says that although the outlook for plovers is tenuous, states like Colorado now have an opportunity to prove they can reverse the bird's decline. Environmental groups, however, remain skeptical and announced recently they still intend to sue to have the birds federally protected, unswayed by Fish and Wildlife's claim plover populations are in no imminent peril.

In comparison to wild turkeys, bald eagles, and spotted owls - symbols of the wildlife conservation movement - few citizens have ever heard of mountain plovers.

Relatives of marine shore birds that gather to breed and nest on the shortgrass prairie where vast herds of buffalo used to roam, plovers are considered key indicators of ecosystem health on the plains. In the spring, they flock out of Mexico and California to breeding grounds in an arc of habitat stretching between Texas and Montana, with Colorado at the center.

Spirit of cooperation

The voluntary census, in which trained ornithologists combed for birds on more than 350,000 acres of private land, produced a spirit of cooperation that wouldn't have existed if the birds had been added to the endangered list.

"Most landowners I know aren't against these animals," Morgan says. "In fact, many enjoy having them around. They just need to know how they can help."

And the results turned up some surprises: Plovers actually thrive in cultivated fields and those grazed down by livestock. In fact, biologists discovered that plovers prefer to breed and nest on bare farm ground in the time just prior to plowing and planting. Thus, farmers are now encouraged to call a hotline 48 to 72 hours before tilling in the spring so that a trained ornithologist can find and flag plover nests, thereby enabling farmers to steer their tractors clear.

Green groups not happy

This effort, however, doesn't satisfy environmentalists. Jeff Kessler of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., one of the original groups to have plovers listed, says the federal government's reluctance to protect plovers by aggressively safeguarding their habitat through regulation increases the chances of their eventually going extinct.

Mr. Kessler says that in Montana, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that fewer than 1,500 plovers exist in the entire state, an almost 50 percent drop from 1999 when groups first pushed to have the birds federally protected. Yet this persistence on the part of environmental groups is what keeps the commercial agriculture industry regarding plovers with the same fear that loggers bestowed on spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest.

Morgan sees the nest-flagging program as a start of an alternative to the people-versus-wildlife dilemma that has resulted in a backlash against conservation. "I fully expect that some environmentalists will sue to get the plover listed but they are jeopardizing their own cause by alienating the very people who could be their strongest allies," Morgan says.

Indeed, environmentalists say they intend to try and have Fish and Wildlife's decision overturned. But both Kessler and Morgan agree private property owners can help protect wild prairie species through better management practices, reducing pesticide, and considering potential financial benefits such as providing viewing opportunities for rare wildlife on their land.

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