A coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Denver challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services failure to protect the mountain plover. The groups said the agency should have designated the bird a threatened species two years ago.
The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 1994 that the mountain plover warranted listing as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned for the species listing in 1997, and in 1999 FWS proposed to list it as threatened.
But the mountain plover has not been added to the list or been given needed protection under the act, the groups said.
The mountain plovers listing is urgently needed, said Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Venice, Fla. This is an imperiled grassland bird that desperately needs protection. The service must take action now, while there is still a good chance for plover recovery.
Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species coordinator for Forest Guardians southeastern Colorado office located in Pritchett, said the mountain plover is one of several species associated with prairie dogs, which is a keystone species in the prairie ecosystem because so many other species depend on it for food or shelter.
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This ecosystem faces continued destruction from crop and livestock agriculture and urban sprawl. We will see more and more of these species petitioned for listing until the service addresses the need to protect the prairie dog ecosystem – including the mountain plover, Rosmarino said.
The groups said they are concerned that the agency has delayed listing the mountain plover because of fears that its protection may affect farmers.
Diane Katzenberger, FWS spokesperson in Denver, said the agency missed its 12-month deadline for making a listing decision on its 1999 proposal because of funding restrictions. The agency has since received funding and is moving ahead with a final decision, she said.
The mountain plover is native to short-grass prairies. The bird is about the size of a killdeer but lacks the breast and neck stripes common to killdeer and other plovers.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 1999 that there were about 10,000 mountain plovers left. Montana has about 2,800 of the birds, about 2,000 of them in Blaine and Phillips counties. Eastern Colorado also is a primary nesting area. The birds winter in California.
Breeding-bird surveys show that mountain plover populations have declined by more than 60 percent from 1966 to 1991. Surveys also show the birds population is declining by 2.7 percent annually, which is a higher rate of decline than any other grassland bird, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Organizations bringing the suit include the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Biodiversity Associates, Center for Native Ecosystems and Forest Guardians. Earthjustice attorneys in Denver are handling the case.