Natural wetlands are known to provide a serious of benefits ranging from erosion control, flood prevention, and vital habitats for unique species. One such unique species is the piping plover, a small, sandy-looking shorebird facing recent population declines due to a combination of wetland drainage and climate change, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reveal in a new study.

"Our findings suggest that if drainage continues, there will be continued declines in the amount of breeding habitat for piping plovers at wetlands in the Great Plains," Lisa McCauley, who led the study as a USGS postdoctoral student and currently works at The Nature Conservancy, explained in a news release. "Managers can use information from our study to better restore and conserve valuable wetland ecosystems for the protection of this species."

Nearly half of the world's wetlands have disappeared since 1990, according to the World Wildlife Fund. There are many known factors that contribute to such vital habitat loss, including commercial development, invasive species, pollution, climate change and the construction of dams.  

In the recent study, researchers from the USGS analyzed piping plover population data collected from 1979 to 2011, which spanned 32 wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota. From this they discovered that drainage of smaller wetlands into neighboring areas, most often for agricultural purposes, has resulted in fewer and fuller wetlands.

This is bad news for piping plovers that prefer to breed on wetland or reservoir shorelines and river sandbars in the northern Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. This is because climate change is throwing off the balance of unflooded prairie wetlands and reservoir shorelines, meaning that consolidation drainage is making wetlands fuller and shorelines smaller. Therefore, more water means less nesting space for breeding plovers. For example, the study found the probability of plover presence was 99.6 percent greater when wetlands were not drained, compared to areas where 10 percent of the watershed was drained.

"High and stable water levels resulting from consolidation drainage threaten biodiversity, wildlife habitat and flood storage in the northern Great Plains," Michael Anteau, a USGS scientist and leader of the study, said in a statement. "This work on a federally listed species provides managers with a more complete view of ecosystem services affected by consolidation drainage."

Piping plovers are currently listed as an endangered species in the Great Lakes and a threatened species across the rest of its range, including the Great Plains. Additionally, if precipitation continues to increase in the Prairie Pothole Region, wetland habitat for piping plovers could continue to decline and current populations could plummet. 

Their study will be published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management.

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