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Great Lakes piping plover

The Great Lakes piping plover (Charadrius melodus) population breeds and raises its young on sparsely vegetated beaches, cobble pans, and sand spits of glacially formed sand dune ecosystems along the Great Lakes shoreline [1]. It formerly nested in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ontario. In the late 1800s the population may have been as large as 492-682 breeding pairs with 215 in Michigan, 152-162 in Ontario, 125-130 in Illinois, fewer than 100 in Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin and fewer than 30 in Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania. Hunting, egg collecting and the millinery trade caused a late 19th-early 20th century population crash of many bird species but were stopped by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. How and when the Great Lakes population declined to its precariously small size at the time of listing is unknown [3]. However, conversion of nesting habitat to public recreation and general shoreline development are believed to have been important causes of the decline. By the late 1970s, the plover was essentially extirpated from Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario. It was extirpated from Wisconsin in 1983 and Minnesota in 1986, leaving just a small Michigan population. Impacts (e.g. development, recreation, beach stabilization) on the plover's wintering range also negatively affected birds from coastal North Carolina to Florida and along the Florida Gulf Coast to Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands.

When the plover was listed as an endangered species in 1985, just 19 pairs remained, all in Michigan [2]. The population fluctuated between 12 and 19 pairs between 1985 and 1993, then increased steadily to 58 birds in 2005. The range expanded to the south, east and west, and plovers recolonized Wisconsin in 1998 at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Lake Superior, after being absent since 1983 [1]. The largest nesting congregation is at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore which typically supports about 25% of the population. The post-1993 increase was facilitated by aggressive management programs that protected nests from predators, nest areas from recreationists, and beaches from development. There is also a small captive rearing program focused exclusively on raising chicks hatched from abandoned eggs.

The 2003 federal recovery plan [1] establishes the following downlisting criteria: 1) a population of at least 150 pairs maintained over five consecutive years, with at least 100 breeding pairs in Michigan and 50 in other Great Lakes states; 2) a five year average range-wide fecundity of 1.5 to 2.0 fledglings per pair; 3) a ten year, post-downlisting projection of a stable or growing population. Delisting can occur when these population goals are paired with 1) a determination that genetic diversity is adequate, and 2) development of long-term funding and management agreements to ensure the population is adequately protected in its breeding and wintering range.

Michigan has attained 50% of its 100 pair breeding goal for four consecutive years [2]. The five-year average fecundity goal has been met. However, breeding in other Great Lakes states is limited to 1-2 pairs in Wisconsin.

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2003. Recovery Plan for the Great Lakes Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. viii + 141 pp.
[2] University of Minnesota Great Lakes Piping Plover Research Program. 2006. Summary of Great Lakes piping plover reproductive success 1984-2005. Spreadsheet provided by Francie Cuthbert, University of Minnesota, February 6, 2006.
[3] Cuthbert, F. 2006. Personal communication with Francie Cuthbert, Great Lakes Piping Plover Research Program, University of Minnesota, February 6, 2006.

Banner photo © Phillip Colla