Why Federal Agency Won’t List Songbird as ‘Threatened’?

After procrastinating for six years and missing numerous deadlines that were required by the Endangered Species Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has come to the conclusion that the Cerulean Warbler should not be listed as a threatened species. When they petitioned the agency in 2000 to list the Cerulean as threatened, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and other regional conservation organizations expressed grave concerns over the future of the songbird in the absence of the comprehensive protections offered by the Act.

The population of the Cerulean Warbler has decreased by almost 82 percent across its range in the United States over the past 40 years, making it the warbler species with the fastest declining population in the country. During the time that the petition submitted by the various groups has been pending in front of the FWS, the rate of decline has accelerated, and the dangers to its continued existence, most notably from mountain removal mining, have become more severe.

The decision by the FWS was reached after the groups filed a lawsuit against the agency in February 2006, accusing the agency of repeatedly violating the deadline requirements outlined in the Act. This dispute was finally resolved in June when the FWS agreed to make a decision that would be final by November 30. Today, the decision was submitted for publication in the Federal Register.

Greg Butcher, Ph.D., Director of Bird Conservation with Audubon, stated that “the birding community is greatly concerned because the Cerulean has been declining throughout its range for such a long period of time.” According to him, the population of the bird has dropped by an annual average of 6% over the past eight years, which is significantly higher than the annual average of 4.3 % that it experienced from 1966 to 2004.

DJ Gerken, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization representing the conservation groups, stated that it is a tragedy that the Fish and Wildlife Service will not step up and act now, before this songbird moves any closer toward extinction. “It’s a tragedy that the Fish and Wildlife Service won’t step up and act now,” said DJ Gerken.

Since the petition was submitted, new information regarding the increasing loss and fragmentation of the Cerulean’s eastern forest habitat due to mountaintop removal mining has come to light. This loss and fragmentation affects the Cerulean in a number of ways. It is anticipated that this type of surface mining will increase dramatically in the core of the Cerulean’s range, which is located in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and where the bird’s population has already suffered severe population declines – 80 percent in the Cumberland Plateau in those three states, and 65 percent in the Ohio Hills in those three states, as well as in Pennsylvania.

A multi-agency environmental study of mountaintop mining in four states (West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia) found that approximately 1.4 million acres of forests will be lost between 1992 and 2012, with mountaintop mining responsible for the loss of more than half of those forests. The loss of habitat for forest birds that have core breeding areas in the Appalachian coal fields has “extreme ecological significance in that habitats required by these species for successful breeding are limited in the eastern United States,” according to the study that noted this loss of habitat for forest birds. The Partners in Flight program has determined that the conservation of 15 species of songbirds that have their habitat in these forests is a priority, with the Cerulean being the species with the highest priority. Because they prefer the steep slopes and ridge tops that will be affected by mountaintop removal the most, Ceruleans will suffer the greatest impact. In the areas of the Ohio Hills and Cumberland Plateau that are being targeted for mountaintop mining, more than 70 percent of the breeding population of Cerulean Warblers can be found.

In the year 2000, 28 different organizations from all across the Eastern United States petitioned the FWS to list the Cerulean as a threatened species. They cited the precipitous decline in population as well as the growing threats to its summer breeding habitat in higher-elevation deciduous forests, such as logging, sprawl development, and mountaintop removal mining. Biologists working for the FWS at one point referred to the bird as a “candidate species,” and in 2002 they determined that the groups’ petition merited further investigation. However, the agency, which has continuously come under fire for ignoring its own scientists’ analysis in favor of politically expedient decisions, evaded issuing a final determination until it was forced to do so by the court. This is despite the fact that the agency has been continually criticized for doing so.

According to Caroline Kennedy, senior director of field conservation with Defenders of Wildlife, “the decision not to list the Cerulean Warbler by the FWS is just one more example of the administration’s blatant disregard for science.” Every day that passes without someone taking the measures that need to be taken to protect the warbler and its habitat brings the songbird one step closer to extinction.

According to Bob Gale, an ecologist for the Western North Carolina Alliance, “The Southern Appalachians form the southernmost range for the Cerulean, one of the songbirds that is most cherished by the growing number of birders who come to the mountains of western North Carolina.” It is the responsibility of the federal government to do everything in their power to prevent the extinction of this bird in our mountains, but they are not living up to that responsibility.

The conservation organizations have stated that they will continue their efforts to protect the Cerulean Warbler. These efforts will include the following: a possible legal challenge to the decision made by the agency; continued tracking and documentation of the bird’s population; advocating for improved logging practices that cause the least amount of damage to Cerulean habitat; and seeking protection for habitat on lands owned by the national forest.

The mission of Audubon is to conserve not only birds and other wildlife but also the natural habitat in which they live. We engage millions of people of all ages and backgrounds in conservation efforts through our national network of community-based nature centers and chapters, our scientific and educational programs, and our advocacy on behalf of areas that sustain important bird populations.

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