Pending Federal Decisions Mean Life or Death for Birds At Risk

WASHINGTON, DC, May 11, 2011 (ENS) – Public lands across the United States provide essential habitat for the survival of hundreds of bird species, according to the 2011 State of the Birds Report compiled by a coalition of conservation groups and government agencies coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The nation’s first assessment of birds on lands and waters owned by the American people shows that more than 300 bird species in the United States have at least 50 percent of their distribution on public lands and waters.

More than 1,000 bird species inhabit the United States, and of these, 251 are federally threatened, endangered, or of conservation concern. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says the report provides a scientific tool to help public agencies identify the most significant conservation opportunities in each habitat.

Endangered I’iwi, Maui, Hawaii (Photo by Kurt Broadmann)

“The State of the Birds report is a measurable indicator of how well we are fulfilling our shared role as stewards of our nation’s public lands and waters,” Salazar said, announcing the report last week. “Although we have made enormous progress in conserving habitat on public lands, we clearly have much more work to do.”

“The good news is that because birds so extensively use public lands and waters as habitat, effective management and conservation efforts can make a significant difference in whether these species recover or slide towards extinction,” he said.

The Obama administration is now considering policy and spending decisions affecting public lands that could have far-reaching effects on bird populations.

George Wallace, vice president of American Bird Conservancy, said, “The State of the Birds Report describing the importance of public lands to our birds comes at a time of tremendous budgetary challenges and underscores the importance of maintaining support for the management of our precious public lands.”

“For example, in the state of Hawaii and in the U.S. Pacific island territories, some of the country’s most imperiled bird species depend almost exclusively on public lands managed by federal, state, and territorial agencies,” said Wallace. “Especially in Hawaii, it is an ongoing challenge to ensure that management of extensive public lands is focused on the conservation of unique bird species in imminent danger of extinction.”

In addition to the funding challenge, policy decisions crucial for the survival of bird species are on the horizon.

The administration must soon decide how strong the wildlife protections will be on the 193-million-acre National Forest System. The Forest Service is accepting public comments through May 16 on a proposed forest management rule that some scientists say weakens existing wildlife protections.

“We are concerned that some of the lesser-known species on the U.S. WatchList of birds of highest conservation concern may no longer be protected by forest managers,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor for American Bird Conservancy.

But Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman maintains the Forest Planning rule will be good for bird conservation. “The Forest Service has developed a draft Forest Planning rule that will ensure our National Forests support birds and other wildlife for decades to come,” he said on May 3. (Click here to read ENS coverage of the draft Forest Planning rule.)

“The administration is also facing a court order to release a final Northern Spotted Owl Recovery Plan by June 1. The draft Recovery Plan calls for additional habitat protection for this threatened owl species,” Holmer explained.

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management is currently pursuing state-by-state plans to improve management standards for the Greater sage-grouse, a species negatively affected by wind development that is on the candidate list for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. A legal settlement reached this week could see this species listed within the next two years.

Male Kirtland’s warbler, Dendroica kirtlandii, in Wisconsin (Photo by Joel Trick courtesy USFWS)

The report finds that public lands provide habitat for 97 percent of endangered Kirtland’s warblers, North America’s rarest songbird.

Sage sparrows and Le Conte’s thrashers have more than 75 percent of their distributions on public lands during the breeding season.

Almost 46 percent of the distribution of the California Gnatcatcher, a threatened species, is found on Department of Defense lands such as Camp Pendleton.

“This report is telling us that we must take action to protect the public lands our nation’s birds depend on,” said David Yarnold, president and chief executive of the National Audubon Society.

“That means environmentally-sound siting for green energy – and the discipline to wean ourselves off fossil fuel,” Yarnold said. “That means adequate funding for the public agencies that preserve, restore and manage these lands for wildlife and the millions of Americans that visit them. And that means investing in the kind of public-private partnerships that have shaped conservation since Teddy Roosevelt established Florida’s Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation in 1903, with support from the Florida Audubon Society.”

The report highlighted the wide variety of bird habitats on public lands. These include:

  • Arid Lands: More than half of U.S. arid lands are publicly owned. Thirty-nine percent of arid land bird species are of conservation concern and more than 75 percent of these species are declining.
  • Oceans and Coasts: All U.S. marine waters are publicly owned and are home to 86 ocean bird species and 173 coastal species. At least 39 percent of U.S. bird species restricted to ocean habitats are declining and almost half are of conservation concern, indicating severe stress in these ecosystems.
  • Forests: Public lands include some of the largest unfragmented blocks of forest, which are crucial for the long-term health of many bird species, including the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, which has 97 percent of its U.S. distribution on public lands.
  • Arctic and Alpine: Ninety percent of boreal forest, alpine, and arctic breeding bird species in Alaska rely on public lands for habitat, including 34 breeding shorebird species of high conservation concern. There are more public lands in Alaska than in the rest of the U.S. combined, offering huge potential to manage lands for conservation.
  • Islands: More birds are in danger of extinction in Hawaii than anywhere else in the United States. Public lands in Hawaii support 73 percent of the distribution of declining forest birds. Among declining Hawaiian forest birds on Kauai, about 78 percent rely on state lands. Four endangered species in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are entirely dependent on federal lands.
  • Wetlands: Wetlands protection has provided the gold standard for bird conservation. On the whole, 39 species of hunted waterfowl have increased by more than 100 percent during the past 40 years as nearly 30 million acres of wetlands have been acquired and management practices have restored bird populations.
  • Grasslands: Grassland birds are among our nation’s fastest declining species, yet only a small amount – 13 percent — of grassland is publicly owned and managed primarily for conservation. Forty-eight percent of grassland-breeding bird species are of conservation concern, including four with endangered populations.

The State of the Birds Report is a collaborative project involving North American Bird Conservation Initiative, American Bird Conservancy, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Bureau of Land Management, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Department of Defense/DoD Partners in Flight, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, University of Idaho, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.