Study prompts skepticism

Sunday, November 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

An MU researcher is skeptical of a recent study that says two birds at the center of the debate about how to manage flows on the Missouri River are doing better than they were 200 years ago.

The study by Missouri River Keepers, an Iowa-based nonprofit group that includes shippers and farmers, said the endangered piping plover and threatened least tern are doing quite well.

Mark Ryan, an MU fisheries and wildlife professor who has studied piping plovers for 20 years, said it would be “impossible” to have “concrete quantitative data from 200 years ago.”

“It is all speculation,” Ryan said, adding that there are no historical numbers to back up the River Keepers study.

Doug Palmer, a shipper associated with Missouri River Keepers, defended what he called anecdotal evidence used in the study, including observations made by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He said sandbars the birds use for nesting did not show up on a consistent basis until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began managing the river.

Ryan said the only sound data he knows of were gathered by annual censuses sponsored by the U.S. Geological Services and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the last count was made in 2001, he said, the number of piping plovers was still very low, although slowly increasing. That census found 1,000 piping plovers along the Missouri River.

“I know that the reproductive success on the river is very low,” Ryan said.

A total of 4,473 plovers were found in the United States in the 2001 census — a 17 percent increase from five years earlier.

Paul Johnston, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the River Keepers study would not be a factor in deciding how to manage the river.

“We know that habitat is critical for the birds,” he said. “And we are looking at ways to change our management of the river, including using mechanical creations of sandbars for the birds to nest. The study, though, will not be a determining factor in our plans.”

The endangered plovers are one reason the Fish and Wildlife Service wants the corps to lower river levels in the summer to expose more sandbars and create nesting habitat.

Ryan has been studying piping plover populations in North Dakota. Although he doesn’t specifically study the birds on the river, he said the populations of all areas should be thought of as one. Factors such as drought can cause the birds to relocate, changing the population numbers in one area but not for the species as a whole. Ryan said it could take 40 to 60 years to reach his goal to boost the piping plover population enough to have the birds taken off the endangered species list.


Plovers are found:

  • In the Northern Great Plains including Canada and North Dakota
  • In the Great Lakes region along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior
  • Along the Atlantic Coast from Canada down to North Carolina
  • Birds from all regions migrate to the Gulf of Mexico, where they spend the winter. During migration in the spring and fall, the birds pass through Missouri.

    Source: Andy Forbes, ornithologist for the Audubon Society

    and the Missouri Department

    of Conservation

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