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‘Plovers’ are for Lovers: How the Mountain Plover Festival helped both a town and an endangered bird

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KARVAL, Colo. — Are you a “plover lover” or are you “over the plover?”

That’s a perennial question for the few hundred people living in Karval, a small eastern-plains township that is home to the annual Mountain Plover Festival celebrating the elusive, mistakenly-named shore bird.

Since the festival’s inception in 2008, hundreds of avid bird watchers have flocked from around the nation — and sometimes from around the globe — to try and spot the diminutive “prairie ghost.”

The flights in turn provide Karval with a public profile and economic activity that residents hope will protect the town from future extinction itself.

“[The festival] has been a little slow getting traction, but there have been some good things that have happened. We’re slowly getting there,” said John Davis, the sitting president of the Karval Community Alliance. 

Davis is in charge of organizing and operating the festival. His duties in that regard include everything from managing attendee registration to driving the Karval Community Alliance birding bus, a yellow-school bus that transports birders between birding locations during the two-and-a-half day event. 

Davis is also the nephew of Russel Davis, founder and owner of the Wineinger-Davis Ranch, who is credited as one of the founders of the festival. 

Russell Davis tells the origin story of the Mountain Plover Festival.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

According to accounts by John and Russell Davis, the Mountain plover first came to fame when a visiting biologist found evidence of the rare bird on the Wineinger-Davis Ranch. 

The second morning of the 2024 festival in late April, as small hail pecked at the yellow birding bus, Russel Davis walked to the front of the bus and recounted the Mountain Plover Festival’s origins, “I said [to the intruding biologist], ‘What in the world are you doing?’”

“And she said, ‘Mr. Davis, they’re everywhere!’”

“And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

“And she said, ‘The birds are everywhere! ‘There’s Mountain plovers here!’”

In the early 2000s, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering listing the then-threatened Mountain plover on the endangered species list. If listed, it would have imposed significant restrictions and regulations on the bird’s habitat, including the Wineinger-Davis Ranch. 

“I grew up in a very conservative family. We didn’t need government in our lives. I’ve never done any work with any agencies. All I wanted to be was a good cattleman,” said Russell Davis.

“So what do I do?” 

After discussing the issue with neighbors and family, and consulting with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies — a nonprofit organization committed to the conservation of birds and their habitats in and around the Rocky Mountain region — Davis agreed to a land easement with the state. This protected the ranch’s agricultural operations with the agreement that Davis would cooperate with conservation efforts. 

In part due to the teamwork of biologists and ranchers such as Davis, a 2010 Fish and Wildlife Service vote designated the Mountain plover threatened, but not endangered.

More than a decade later, Russell Davis works with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to promote the benefits of “collaborative conservation” with other agricultural workers across the country. 

And every year, he partners with the Karval Community Alliance and opens up the Wineinger-Davis ranch to a busload of excited birders to share the Mountain plovers and the significance of rancher-biologist cooperation in protecting the environment.

The Karval Community Alliance is a 501(c)3 organization formed to find ways in which they could better spotlight and support the diminishing township.

The population of Karval has been steadily declining by about 5% each year since 2000, according to US Census data. While that may sound like a small amount, when a township’s entire population is 624, each individual makes a difference.

Ongoing initiatives include raising grant money to improve the Karval community building and expanding the monthly public food pantry.

“We were trying to figure out how we could bring light to the town to try and get some businesses because eventually, when all the kids leave the town, it ceases to exist,” said Davis. 

Population management, and particularly the retention of younger generations, is an issue afflicting a growing number of rural communities across the country, and Karval is no exception. 

On the first evening tour, one life-long Karval resident — who assumed the role of “Township Historian” during the festival — stood at the front of the bus sharing some of Karval’s concerning demographic statistics. Her audience of visiting birders numbered about fifty, a figure that’s more than double central Karval’s residential population.

“There are probably about 40 people that lived in the [center] of Karval,” said the historian. She said the township as a whole is home to a little more than 600 residents.

A stormy sunrise at the Karval’s single K-12 school.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

The school district, she said, includes about 400 families, she said. And currently the K-12 Karval School has an enrollment of 33 students. 

This year, there is one graduating senior in the Karval High School Class of 2024. 

Yet, according to Katie Mereweather, another life-long Karval resident who graduated in a class of four, there were benefits that came with a small student body.

“...everyone gets to do everything,” said Mereweather. “I was able to do FFA (Future Farmers of America), theater, the knowledge bowl, sports… all different sorts of things.”

“There’s also the cost that everyone has to do everything in order for there to be a basketball team.”

It was during her time in school, and thanks in part to the Mountain Plover Festival, that Mereweather discovered her love for nature, specifically the short-grass prairie in which she was raised. 

“I was in junior high, high school when the plover festival first kind of got started,” said Mereweather, “... all of a sudden, there were a bunch of wildlife biologists in Karval.”

“They were so welcoming and kind and allowed me to trail them in counting burrowing owls or to look at box turtles,” she said. “It caused me to look at the grasslands differently because all of a sudden,you notice it.”

Mereweather now works out of Rocky Ford though returns to the Mountain Plover Festival every year to help lead birding tours around her home township.

Mereweather reads off the festival’s collective check-list, a running tally of all the birds spotted throughout the various outings.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

“What is here in town?” said Davis to himself, laughing. “Post office. School. Park. Feed store.” 

Apart from a couple of churches and the Karval community building itself, there is little else located in Karval. 

Davis and Mereweather pointed to this lack of infrastructure and living amenities as largely responsible for the flight of younger residents to larger cities. 

“Karval is not alone in this,” said Mereweather. “Our rural and agricultural communities are aging… people just moving to cities for jobs, good paying jobs, because there’s fairly little economic opportunity here.”

According to Mereweather, the population flight acts as a sort of self-perpetuating cycle: as residents leave, sustaining businesses like gas stations, restaurants and grocery stores can no longer survive, in turn driving more residents away.

“[Karval] hasn’t had a cafe in 20 years,” said Mereweather. “Those little things, when they’re not there, make your life harder and makes it harder and harder to keep people.”

Mereweather added that dwindling populations might also lead to the loss of local knowledge and create a growing disconnect between an individual and their home. 

The Mountain Plover Festival revolves around the concept of “collaborative conservation,” which, within the context of Karval, indicates the collaborative efforts of local ranchers and national and state wildlife biologists.

“Private landowners are the stewards of over half of the lands in Colorado, and so our cooperation and work with them becomes essential for us caretaking our wildlife and natural resources within the state,” said Ray Aberle, the private lands program manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

The significance of collaborative conservation between ranchers and conservationists is a key focus throughout the festival.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Aberle travels across the state working with ranchers, farmers and other private landowners to find ways in which they can work together with the CPW in the name of environmental protection. 

Along with agricultural workers, Aberle teams up with private lands biologists spread across an array of local communities as well. This allows the CPW to work more intimately with a number of regions that might otherwise be overlooked or under-resourced. 

These partnerships help foster a mutual respect and understanding between national and state organizations and local agricultural workers, breaking down communication barriers that often divide the two parties.

By pushing conservation initiatives like those included in the USDA Farm Bill, Aberle believes that government bodies such as the CPW can create generational relationships with agricultural workers. 

Rachel Belouin, the southern plains program manager at the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, underlined that this collaborative conservation can be as beneficial for the farmers and ranchers as it is for the environment. 

In the end, according to Belouin, “it just makes sense.”

“Ranchers are already stewarding the land, so ideally we can then collaborate together with their interests of having really healthy, productive grasslands… [which is] exactly aligned with conservation interests.”

The short-grass prairie biomes, such as those surrounding Karval, have historically been managed by wildfires and grazing bison and elk, explained Belouin. Over time, as fires were controlled and cattle replaced bison, these natural systems fell out of place. 

“This biome depends upon those natural disturbances to keep it regenerative, to keep it healthy, to keep it productive,” said Belouin. “Now we use grazing cattle to really mimic a lot of these natural processes as best we can.”

Belouin works specifically on developing partnerships with private landowners located in the eastern and southern plains of Colorado, extending down into New Mexico. Before her conservation project, she worked on a ranch herself, an experience that she keeps close to her heart.

“I think of conservation moving at the speed of trust,” said Belouin, “and to me… the way that we’re going to solve all of these questions and these problems is through building relationships, partnership and collaboration.”

Yet building these relationships can prove challenging. Skepticism and a general distrust of outside — particularly government — entities interfering with private lands brings the speed of trust to a crawl at times, according to locals. 

This is where having a community insider provides a solution. 

Mereweather, the Mountain Plover Festival’s local birding guide, now works as a private lands wildlife biologist with the Bird Conservancy of Colorado. She believes her combined experience as a local rancher and as a biologist have provided a unique perspective into both worlds.

“I sometimes feel like I've kind of inherited my way into this position,” she said. 

Mereweather stressed the importance of including local perspectives in conversations about land management and conservation in local communities. The outsider nature and knowledge of incoming biologists differs with the established roots ranchers have established. 

“Biologists have a tendency to think that we know everything,” said Mereweather. “Every one of these landowners knows more about their land than you do.”

“But we all know different things… biologists have been studying the specifics of bird species or the specifics of habitat types, and the landowner knows when it rains and what areas are going to have the deepest grass.”

Birders scan an early-dawn horizon for signs of the elusive Mountain plover.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

However, not all are as keen to roost in Karval. 

On the Saturday evening, hungry birders, satisfied with having spotted a couple of Mountain plovers between rain and hail storms showering the grassy plains, filled the community building to enjoy a celebratory prime rib meal. 

About halfway through the dinner, two high school students — a boy and a girl — mistakenly crashed the birder dinner instead of the Karval High School prom dinner.

For the last few years, the Karval High School prom has fallen on the same weekend as the Mountain Plover Festival, making it one of the busiest times of year for the township. 

Over time, it has become something of a tradition for the big Saturday-night festival dinner (for example, this year’s prime rib feast) to be shared with the prom-goers. Some years, the two parties have dined together, though the kids have gradually relocated to a nearby church.

Prom design and decoration duties are typically assigned to the junior class. This year, the responsibility fell on Bo Corn, Levi Yoder, Shane Reed and Eddy Rainy, the four Karval High School juniors.

“For 30 minutes every day this week, we had all 12 people in high school helping us,” said Reed. 

The four boys, all of which had been in Karval’s single K-12 school since at least the first grade (if not since preschool), clarified that at one point there had been as many as seven or eight students in their class. 

“There used to be more girls than there were guys, but we ran ‘em all off,” said Yoder, laughing.

The real reason for most students moving: “not enough jobs,” said Corn. 

“There’s nothing to do in Karval,” he said. “If you want to work, you either work at the school or you work for one of the ranchers…”

“Or the post office,” said Reed. 

“That’s really not high paying jobs, so most people go to pursue something a little bit better, I guess. It’s not for everybody,” said Corn. 

“The politics in Colorado can be kind of tough on this way of life,” said Yoder. 

“Nobody really wants to support Karval. It’s in the middle of nowhere for school, and we just get forgotten about,” said Corn. 

“Until we have the Plover Festival,” said Reed. 

Yoder, the boy who had mistakenly walked into the festival dinner earlier, remembered once joining a bus tour in the past and being surprised at how far some had traveled to attend. 

“There was a guy from Britain… there’s people from all over the place, and it’s crazy that they wind up in nowhere, USA,” said Yoder. 

They compared running the Mountain Plover Festival to sitting on the Karval Water Board: as a kind of “tradition” that gets passed down to the next generation who stay. 

“There was someone who was [running the water board] for a really long time, and someone showed a little bit of interest in it, and he said, ‘That’s it, I retire. It’s your job now,’” said Yoder. 

“It’s one of those things that if you stick around, you’ll start caring about it because someone will tell you to. But we’re not there yet.”

Mereweather, Davis and other locals recognized the lacking resources and opportunities in Karval required to convince a younger generation to remain.

They hope that as they continue to invest time and effort into events like the Mountain Plover Festival, it may convince others to invest a bit more time and attention into Karval as well. 

“A lot of [the Mountain Plover Festival] is as much to show [people] the bird as it is to interact with them. And get them an understanding of there can be a relationship between the landowner and the wildlife,” said Davis.


Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. Chasemccleary@rmpbs.org

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