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Good news for birds (and birders): Species protection is working

Among birds listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, 78 percent are stable, recovering — even thriving.

A bald eagle takes flight over the Mississippi River near Wabasha.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Early this month I spent a pleasant couple of days at a lake cabin near Minocqua, Wisconsin, where the sight of bald eagles – nesting, soaring, fishing – was a daily joy to some folks from Maryland and Maine.

And to me as well, in the simultaneous reminders of the thrill a grand bird can bring to people, of my good luck to live where eagles can be seen almost daily in summer, of American conservation policy’s stellar triumph in bringing this species back from virtual extinction in the lower 48.

The question arose at one point as to how many other birds have been saved in this way under the Endangered Species Act, but we were out in a boat just then and I’d left my Googling gizmos on land. By the time we returned to the dock the question was forgotten.

But an answer arrived this week in the form of a new analysis by the American Bird Conservancy, and quite an encouraging answer it is, too. Which makes it rather a rarity nowadays in the general run of news about species extinction.

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According to statistics assembled by the American Bird Conservancy, fully 78 percent of mainland U.S. bird species given protection under the ESA have achieved population stability or are growing in number.

It’s a tougher situation in Hawaii, where only about half the ESA-listed species are doing well, but if they’re included in the mix the national success rate is still about 70 percent.

Falcons, pelicans, geese

And while our national symbol deserves its poster-bird status, for a recovery so robust that it no longer gets ESA protection, the bald eagle isn’t the only iconic species to achieve delisting. So have the peregrine falcon, the brown pelican, and an Aleutian subspecies of Canada goose (subsequently reclassified as a cackling goose).

Delistings comprise about 13 percent of all birds protected under the ESA. The conservancy calculates that 42 percent of listed bird species are experiencing population increases and 16 percent are holding steady.

On the other side of the ledger, 21 percent are continuing to decline — with the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet among the headliners — while 7 percent are widely presumed to have actually been extinct before they were listed (like the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker); the status of another 2 percent is “unknown.”

But only one bird, the seaside sparrow’s dusky subspecies, is known to have gone extinct in spite of ESA efforts. Two others – thick-billed parrot and the masked subspecies of northern bobwhite  – have declined to the point of extirpation.

The conservancy cites a scientific estimate that more than 200 animals and plants have been saved from extinction under the ESA during a single decade, from 1994 to 2004; of these, 16 were birds. (As of this writing, 1,441 animals and 901 plants are on the endangered/threatened lists maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Birds still face plenty of existential challenges, especially in Hawaii, where the usual pressures of habitat loss, invasive species, diseases, environmental toxins and changing climate are compounded by island biogeography. Also,  in the conservancy’s view, an under-allocation of the federal funds that support ESA-based recovery efforts.

And the law itself is under perpetual challenge, of course, from factions who deride it as fruitless or assail it as regulatory excess ripe for scuttling, or at least try to carve out special-interest exemptions, as Congress did via spending bills for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 to head off ESA protections for the greater sage grouse.

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Victory from obstruction

On the other hand, the report notes, that interference “was also cited by Department of the Interior officials as the main instigator for an unprecedented national planning strategy that led to stronger habitat protection for 35 million acres of the most important sage-grouse habitats on federal lands.”

As for the assertion that ESA is some kind of impediment to sensible land management, the conservancy explains that

If a federal action has the potential to jeopardize a species, a series of consultations (both informal and formal) and biological assessments are required. These can result in the positive conservation action to improve a species’ status, amendments to proposed actions to reduce negative impacts, or mitigation measures to counterbalance detrimental outcomes.

Of the more than 6,800 formal interagency consultations that took place between 2008 and 2015, only two projects (0.03 percent) resulted in the conclusion that the proposed agency action would  likely place a species in jeopardy.

Still, the organization advocates for a range of improvements in agencies’ application of ESA protections and, more important, for greater vigor in conserving species before they falter sufficiently to merit listing in the first place.

The ESA acts as an emergency room for our rarest species—but what should we be doing to treat the less severe cases before they need intensive care?

With few exceptions, non-listed declining bird species do not receive nearly the level of funding they require—and typically orders of magnitude less than listed species—in many cases allowing them to drift towards endangerment. Not only is this a colossal risk, it is bad economics, as the cure will likely come at a much higher cost than would prevention.

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The full report, “Endangered Species Act: A Record of Success,” can be read here [PDF] without charge, and a recording of the webinar can be viewed here. Fine bird photography in both places.