$4 million grant to study Gulf oil spill’s effects on plovers

Plover Research

Researchers began collecting data
on piping plovers in the Gulf within a
week after the grant was awarded.

College researchers received a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on piping plovers, shorebirds that have been listed as threatened since 1986. The research team began work on the grant application within days of the explosion that caused the oil spill, and had a full team of 28 researchers collecting data on site within a week of the grant notification. The study, led by faculty members James Fraser, Sarah Karpanty, Bill Hopkins, and Dan Catlin, was originally funded only through the end of the plovers’ spring migration in April, but an additional grant of $650,000 has enabled the team to continue their field study through the summer breeding season.

The researchers, from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, have been measuring plover survival and migration patterns by comparing rates of survival and emigration in oiled and unoiled areas of the Gulf, where the birds overwinter each year. With the additional funding, they are studying the plovers’ migration back to the American Great Plains, one of their three summer breeding grounds, focusing on sites along the Missouri River.

Fraser has been studying piping plovers since 1986. His vast data collection and his renowned expertise helped the team to secure the additional funding. “We were very fortunate to have had great historical data on reproduction and survival on the Missouri River,” Fraser observed. “This should allow us to compare reproduction and survival from previous years with these parameters after the oil spill.

Banded Plover

Piping plovers have been listed as

threatened since 1986. (Photo by Sid Maddock)

Unfortunately, this year’s unprecedented flooding of the Missouri River has been greatly affecting the plovers’ migration to their summer nesting grounds and may impact the study’s results. “Our goal is to find birds that we saw at the Gulf back on their breeding ground and to observe them in terms of reproduction,” stated Karpanty. However, much of the birds’ habitat is currently underwater. “The amount of water coming down the river is the highest since the dams were constructed in the mid-20th century,” Fraser added.

When completed, the research will provide data upon which litigators can base settlements for the damage lawsuits resulting from the oil spill. In order to factor damage to plover habitat into these settlements, litigators must know whether and by how much plover survival and migration patterns have changed since the spill. “Our real hope,” Fraser said, “is that our data will be used for restoration efforts. We want our research to help people think toward the future.

The team is planning to pursue additional funding to continue their research through the next winter season.





Dana Keith
Assistant to Department Head
Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM100, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5573
Fax: (540) 231-7580


Dr. Sarah Karpanty 
Graduate Program Coordinator 

Fish and Wildlife Conservation
Cheatham Hall, RM150, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-4586
Fax: (540) 231-7580
Email: karpanty@vt.edu


Stephanie Hart, Director
The Advising Center
Cheatham Hall, RM138, Virginia Tech
310 West Campus Drive (MC0321)
Blacksburg, VA 24061

Phone: (540) 231-5482
http://cnre.vt.edu/students Email: cnre_students@vt.edu