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Tern and Plover Habitat

The purpose of the Tern and Plover Habitat Program is to provide sandbar habitat for two federally listed species of birds, the endangered interior population of least tern (Sternula antillarum) and the threatened Northern Great Plains piping plover (Charadrius melodus). 

  • Least terns and piping plovers prefer sparsely vegetated sandbars that are not connected to adjacent banks as nesting and foraging habitat.
  • Habitat targets are established for the program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2018 Biological Opinion on the Operation of the Missouri River Mainstem System. The historic hydrograph of the Missouri River has been permanently altered as a result of the construction of the six mainstem dams. Because the system is permanently altered, the historic flow regime that existed prior to construction of the dams has changed dramatically. Prior to construction of the dams, the mountain and the plains snow melt would create two separate influxes of water into the system each spring. These snow melt events coupled with spring rains would annually erode and deposit sand resulting in the creation of open sandbars.  The dynamic environment prevented establishment of vegetation on the sandbars. 

Objectives and Actions

Program Objectives

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2018 Biological Opinion identifies the following fundamental objective for the piping plover and least tern:  

Avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the piping plover and least tern due to USACE actions on the Missouri River.   

The BiOP also has four sub-objectives and each has specific metrics and targets.  If the targets for the sub-objectives are maintained, it will result in meeting the fundamental objective.     

Sub-Objective 1 (Distribution): Maintain a geographic distribution of plovers in the river and reservoirs in which they currently occur in both the Northern and Southern Regions on the Missouri River.   

Sub-Objective 2 (Population): Maintain a population of Missouri River piping plovers with a modeled 95% probability that at least 50 individuals will persist for at least 50 years in both the Northern and Southern Regions. 

Sub-Objective 3 (Population Dynamics): Maintain a stable or increasing long-term trend in population size in both regions. 

Sub-Objective 4 (Reproduction): Maintain fledgling production by breeding pairs sufficient to meet the population growth rate objectives within both the Northern and Southern Regions on the Missouri River.

Management Actions

Current management actions for the terns and plovers are listed below.  See also the Science page for other management actions related to the terns and plovers.

Vegetation Management

A combination of herbicide application, controlled burning, and mechanical removal is used to maintain open sandbars that can be used for nesting and foraging. 

Tern and Plover Habitat Construction 

In years when habitat models indicate construction is needed, in-river sandbars can be mechanically constructed and maintained.  

  • Methods used for construction of sandbars vary by each project site location.
  • Sandbar construction sites are selected through the National Environmental Policy Act process that involves feedback from multiple agencies, the Tribes, and the public.  Multiple selection criteria are used to help with site selection.  Two of the main selection criteria are areas where shallow submerged sandbar already exists and river width.  Wide areas in the river and areas out of the main river flow (thalweg) are selected since there are lower velocities in these areas.
  • The Tern and Plover Habitat program capitalizes on areas of natural deposition of sand by raising these shallow submerged sandbars to exposed elevations needed for nesting. Various combinations of dredging and equipment such as bulldozers and excavators are utilized to construct the sandbar to specified contours and elevations.

The construction season for tern and plover habitat is short as it is limited to the times of year when the least terns and piping plovers are not in the area and weather conditions allow. These species typically arrive in mid-April and leave in mid to late August.    

For more information, please see the Emergent Sandbar Habitat (ESH) Creation Fact Sheet.

Tern and Plover Habitat Photos

Photo of ESH construction using backhoe and truck

ESH Construction at river mile 795:  A backhoe loads dredged sand into a dump truck that will distribute the material to other portions of the sandbar to be spread to designed elevations by bulldozers. This completed sandbar complex provides the desired bare sand habitat the terns and plovers prefer. 

Photo of a man pushing a mower

Vegetation Management:  In addition to habitat being created by mechanical construction activities, vegetation management on existing sandbars also creates habitat. Oftentimes birds will abandon sandbars where there is too much vegetation. Vegetation interferes with the birds' ability to see approaching predators. Vegetation management can be accomplished with combinations of herbicide application, mechanical removal, and controlled burning. 

Photo of the multi-agency team on a site selection trip

Multi-Agency Team: The Corps meets on a regular basis to review current and proposed management actions, conditions in the field, and any identified issues for the Tern and Plover Habitat program.  The Tribal and interagency team provides input during the site screening process to help determine which sites are evaluated through NEPA.  The interagency team includes government and Tribal representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Park Service; the North Dakota State Water Commission; North Dakota Parks and Recreation; South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks; the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; and numerous others.