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A male Kirtland’s warbler sings its song.

G. Ronald Austing/Science Source

After 50-year conservation effort, songbird flies off U.S. endangered species list

Originally published by E&E News

The Kirtland's warbler has required protections for as long as there has been an Endangered Species Act (ESA), but that's about to change.

In what the Trump administration and some environmentalists are calling a regulatory and collaborative success story, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) today announced it is removing the notably loudmouthed songbird from the endangered species list.

"The Kirtland's warbler has responded well to active management over the past 50 years," FWS said. "The primary threats identified at listing and during ... development of the recovery plan have been managed, and commitments are in place to continue managing the threats."

FWS cited, in particular, the work done by Michigan state and federal agencies to boost breeding habitat and combat brood parasitism by an unscrupulous competitor species.

"The effort to recover the Kirtland's warbler is a shining example of what it takes to save imperiled species," said Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of FWS. "Truly dedicated partners have worked together for decades to recover this songbird."

Population numbers underscore the warbler's turnaround (Greenwire, 11 April, 2018).

In 1971, two years before enactment of the ESA, the Kirtland's warbler population declined to approximately 201 singing males and was restricted to six counties in the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

By 2015, the year of the last full census, the population reached a record high of 2,383 singing males and had spread geographically. FWS noted that the "frequent, loud, and persistent singing of territorial males during the breeding season" made counting possible.

But while the bird is falling off the ESA list, officials note that it remains a "conservation-reliant species" that will still require hands-on management.

"Conservation of the Kirtland's warbler will continue to require a coordinated, multi-agency approach for planning and implementing conservation efforts into the future," FWS stated, citing the need for partnerships and "sufficient funding" to continue conservation work.

The Kirtland's warbler was federally listed as an endangered species in 1967, under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. When the ESA succeeded the 1966 law, the species' listing was carried over.

Multiple problems put the bird at risk.

Modern wildfire suppression practices "greatly altered the natural disturbance regime" that enabled growth of the jack pine forests favored by the species, FWS noted. The warbler is also deemed "particularly sensitive" to brown-headed cowbird brood parasitism.

Michigan state and federal agencies have replanted approximately 90,000 acres of Kirtland's warbler habitat over the past 30 years. Timber receipts offset the cost of replanting jack pine needed to support a viable bird population.

An aggressive control program annually removes approximately 3573 brown-headed cowbirds from Kirtland's warbler habitat, with some fall-off in recent years, according to FWS.

While some opposed delisting the species, only 42 public comments were filed in response to the proposal, suggesting a general lack of controversy.

"This remarkable bird has a most impressive, exemplary success story that illustrates effective conservation and collaboration at work," Heather Good, executive director of Michigan Audubon, based in Okemos, wrote last year.

Shawn Graff, vice president of American Bird Conservancy's Great Lakes program, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, added today that the delisting is "cause for celebration and proof that the Endangered Species Act works."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at