Updates on endangered woodpecker, rail, crow, and sage-grouse

Several threatened and endangered bird species and populations in the United States have made news in recent weeks. Here’s a roundup.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed downlisting the Red-cockaded Woodpecker from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The bird of southeastern longleaf pine forests has been the subject of recovery efforts for decades.

Once abundant from New Jersey to Florida, west to Texas and north to Missouri, the woodpecker’s range had dwindled to just a handful of states by the 1960s, following more than a century of habitat loss. In the late 1970s, there was an all-time low of an estimated 1,470 clusters of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. A breeding pair is joined by “helpers,” usually the males from previous broods that assist with incubation and feeding of the next generation. Today, FWS estimates nearly 7,800 clusters are ranging across 11 states from southern Virginia to eastern Texas.

FWS is also proposing a special rule for the woodpecker under section 4(d) of the ESA that will tailor protections needed for the bird’s recovery. The rule would prohibit incidental take associated with actions that would result in the further loss or degradation of woodpecker habitat. This includes impacts to cavity trees, actions that would harass Red-cockaded Woodpeckers during the breeding season, and the use of insecticides near clusters, which are groups of cavity trees used by a group of woodpeckers for nesting and roosting.

“The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is definitely a success story for the Endangered Species Act, and we appreciate the many efforts by forest landowners to help conserve this species,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for American Bird Conservancy. “We’re now reviewing the full down-listing recommendation and 4d rule, with an eye to ensuring that the woodpecker’s great progress continues.”

“Audubon loves nothing more than to celebrate a success story under the Endangered Species Act, and by all rights, we have seen tremendous improvements in Red-cockaded Woodpecker (RCW) and longleaf habitat management,” says Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “Nevertheless, we are glad it will retain threatened status and are gravely concerned for what the future holds for RCWs, especially in light of climate change.

“Hurricane Michael dealt a devastating blow to the longleaf pine habitat of the central Panhandle, which is home to the largest breeding population of this rare species. With increasing storm intensity and frequency, how will RCW habitat fare in the future? The memory of the Southeast’s lost Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a stark reminder that habitat matters, and it takes days to destroy what took decades and centuries to grow. Protection is always more effective and less expensive than restoration. Status determinations like this must take into account climate impacts to truly be complete.”

Eastern Black Rail

Yesterday, FWS announced it is listing the Eastern Black Rail as threatened. Partially migratory, the Eastern Black Rail is historically known to exist in 35 states east of the Rocky Mountains, Puerto Rico, Canada, Brazil, and several countries in the Caribbean and Central America. It is one of four subspecies of Black Rail that live in salt, brackish, and freshwater marshes. The California Black Rail subspecies, confined to central and southern California, western Arizona, and Mexico, is not included in this listing. Two other Black Rail subspecies that occur in South America are likewise not included in this listing.

Eastern Black Rail populations have declined 75 percent in just the last decade or two, the agency said. Conservationists say the bird should have received endangered status.

“They are one of the front-line species dealing with the impact of sea level rise,” Bryan Watts, a professor of conservation biology at the College of William and Mary, told ABC News. “That’s really the cause of their catastrophic decline.”

He said the bird is no longer found north of North Carolina.

Stephanie Kurose, senior endangered species policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, says in a statement: “Federal officials’ refusal to designate critical habitat is a big blow to these little creatures. If the rail is going to have any chance of survival, we must protect the coastal wetlands where it lives from polluting industries, urban sprawl, and increasing sea-level rise.”

‘Alalā

About 100 ‘Alalā live in captivity. Photo courtesy San Diego Zoo Global

The coalition of conservation partners working to recover the ‘Alalā (also known as the Hawaiian Crow) are looking to the future as they work to address recent challenges that have affected the population of the species living in the Pu’u Maka`ala Natural Area Reserve (NAR), on Hawai‘i island.

In response to recent mortalities, including predation of the birds, mostly by ‘Io (Hawaiian Hawk), conservationists are bringing the remaining  ‘Alalā back from the wild into the conservation breeding program at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC). Having successfully lived in the wild for 2-3 years, these birds have knowledge about foraging, predator avoidance, and other social behaviors that could be passed on to the birds residing within the conservation breeding program and aid with future recovery efforts.

“For the last three years it has been encouraging to see the released birds transition to the wild; foraging, calling, and flying in native forests,” said Jackie Gaudioso-Levita, a biologist with the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) and the coordinator of the ‘Alalā  Project.  “It is important to ensure that these surviving ‘Alalā are able to pass on the skills they have learned in the wild to future generations of the species. While very difficult, bringing these birds back into the breeding program is an interim step to the review and adaptation of the program to recover the species.”

Gunnison Sage-Grouse

The Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project are suing four federal agencies over their failure to adequately protect the Gunnison Sage-Grouse in the Gunnison Basin of western Colorado, where the majority of remaining birds survive.

The conservation groups say that the Gunnison Basin Candidate Conservation Agreement, which was developed in 2013 to minimize risks and harms from the agencies’ authorization of grazing, development and recreation in the Gunnison Basin, is unlawful. Based on outdated conservation measures that ignore a decade and a half of new information about the species’ needs, the agreement has failed to protect the grouse, whose numbers in the basin have plummeted to historic lows while the agencies have failed to carry out required conservation measures.

“The Gunnison Sage-Grouse stands on the brink of extinction, and we need all hands on deck to save these magnificent birds,” said Ryan Shannon, a staff attorney at the CBD. “These federal agencies need to step up and take meaningful action on livestock grazing and other threats destroying the grouse, before it’s too late.”

Since the conservation agreement was adopted, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse population in the Gunnison Basin has declined dramatically from 3,149 in 2013 to only 1,667 in 2020 — a more than 40 percent decline in just six years.

‘Bi-State’ Greater Sage-Grouse

Late last month, four conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco to compel the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the “Bi-State” population of Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

The Bi-State Sage-Grouse lives only in an area along the California-Nevada border and faces multiple threats, including grazing, mining, and habitat loss. Population declines are particularly acute at the northern and southern ends of the birds’ range.

“Federal officials have failed to protect this special bird, and they need to be held accountable under the law,” said Lisa Belenky, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s disturbing to see officials double down on voluntary measures that have failed to work, even as the Bi-State Sage-Grouse population keeps plummeting. Without the legal protection of the Endangered Species Act, multiple threats will push these beautiful grouse to extinction.”

The bird was originally proposed for listing as threatened in 2013, with 1.86 million acres of critical habitat proposed for designation, but the Fish and Wildlife Service abandoned the proposal in 2015. In 2018 a federal court found the agency had wrongly denied Endangered Species Act protection to the Bi-State Sage-Grouse and required it to re-evaluate the bird’s situation. The grouse was again proposed for protection, but in March 2020 federal officials denied protection.

Sage-grouse populations in California and Nevada are isolated from other sage-grouse by unsuitable habitats and former habitat that has been heavily developed. Only an estimated 3,305 birds remain, far below the 5,000-bird threshold scientists consider the minimum viable population.

Efforts to protect the birds, including installing flagging on barbed-wire fencing and vegetation-removal projects, have failed to stem their decline. Federal scientists predict localized extinctions in the north and south ends of the range. Scientists also estimate occupied habitat has already decreased by more than 136,000 acres over the past 11 years.

The conservation groups that filed the lawsuit are Desert Survivors, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and WildEarth Guardians.

Judge protects nearly 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitat

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