Alkaline wetland beaches provide crucial habitat for breeding piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) in the northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada. Vegetation encroachment has been identified as a potential threat that decreases alkaline beach habitat availability, but the long-term status of these breeding habitats has not been evaluated. We measured vegetation changes at two North Dakota alkaline wetland complexes from 1938 to 1997. Total beach habitat, including lower beaches that were impacted by flooding, varied substantially among years based on changes in surface-water levels. Quantities of upper-beach habitats, which were not affected by inundation, were negatively correlated with precipitation amounts during the previous five-year periods. We measured declines in upper-beach habitat averaging 0.89 ha/yr and 0.20ha/yr at our two wetland complexes from 1938 to 1997, suggesting that long-term changes in factors other than precipitation (e.g., ground-water hydrology, livestock grazing intensity, or fire frequency) may be negatively affecting beach availability. Vegetation reduction may be critical to long-term recovery of threatened piping plovers in the Great Plains.
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Vol. 24 • No. 4