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Missouri River sandbars closed to protect endangered birds

Sandbars along the Missouri River are a popular feature for boaters in the summertime. They're also home to endangered wildlife and a prime nesting location for one bird that builds its nests on the sandbars - the piping plover

The river is covered in sandbars that vary in size and length, due to the changing water levels. Sandbars can become both submerged and exposed within a day given the proper circumstance.

Piping plovers are small, sparrow- sized birds that fall prey to many different animals, such as raccoons. But humans present the greatest threat.

"If we get people out on the sandbars for too long, the adult plovers will abandon their eggs and that's three or four chicks that you lose," said Galen Jons, a biologist with the National Park Service.

Jons said the chicks are very difficult to see and easy to step on if visitors aren't paying attention.

Piping plovers are listed as an endangered species, a title that Jons anticipates will be around for some time.

"Our numbers are good this year, but any time we have something impact the birds, that's always a setback," he said.

Chief Ranger Drew Podany reminded visitors that use of ATV vehicles is strictly prohibited on the sandbars by the National Park Service, even when plovers aren't nesting.

"On a weekly basis, we get reports of trucks, ATVs and trailers stuck in the water somewhere on the 100-mile stretch," Podany said.

There has been less flow to certain areas on the river this summer, particularly near the Vermillion-Newcastle Bridge, according to Podany.

"That makes people think they can drive out through the river," he said.

Visitors that trespass the closed sandbars risk major fines related to violations of the endangered species act.

Podany says not every violation deserves the same treatment.

"Someone walking versus someone crushing nests with an ATV, there's obviously differences there," he said.

The Missouri National Recreational River purposely doesn't share maps of the sandbar closures, to prevent attention on the birds. Visitors are advised to pay attention to red warning signs of areas and sandbars to stay away from.

Anyone who happens to approach a nestis told to leave the site immediately.

Biologists are also maintaining the habitat for plovers by eliminating overgrowth of vegetation on the sandbars, which has increased because of lower water levels.

Jons says they will eliminate excess vegetation towards the end of the summer with helicopters that spray from above.

Marissa Brunkhorst is a junior at the University of South Dakota. She is from Hutchinson, Minnesota and is based out of the Vermillion studio.