No Longer Endangered?

Final decision of delisting Kirtland’s warblers is expected in 2019.
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Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland’s Warbler // Photography courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In the northern jackpine forests around Mio, one of the nation’s rarest birds, the Kirtland’s warbler, appears to be doing fine. So well, that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed last spring to remove it from the federal endangered species list. The public comment period ended in July and a final decision is expected in 2019.

The tiny, steel gray, yellow-bellied bird that sings from those trees in summer — they winter in the Bahamas — was nearly extinct 40 years ago. Its plight was recognized in the 1950s, a victim of habitat loss, and it was one of the first animals added to the endangered species list in 1967. The population has since rebounded from a low of around 350 warblers in 1987 to approximately 4,600 today; more than double the recovery goal, according to the FWS.

Once thought of as a species that nested only in Michigan, Kirtland’s warblers now are nesting in Wisconsin and Ontario, as well, though in smaller numbers.

Bill Rapai, president of Grosse Pointe Audubon and author of “The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It,” which received a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2013, said the decision was “a bit of a surprise.” Delisting had been talked about, but he thought the FWS might downlist it to Threatened status, rather than take it off the list.

Once thought of as a species that nested only in Michigan, Kirtland’s warblers now are nesting in Wisconsin and Ontario, as well, though in smaller numbers.

Delisting, he said, “doesn’t bother me.” Rapai is chairman of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, a group working to raise money to fund continuing conservation efforts once the warbler comes off the list. Threatened status, he said, would offer some continuing protection. The state also would continue to receive money from the federal government for managing jackpine habitat and cowbird control.

Brown-headed cowbirds are a threat because they lay their eggs in Kirtland’s warbler nests, among others, and rely on the host to raise their young. Cowbird eggs hatch earlier than warbler’s, and the nestlings are larger and more aggressive than warbler chicks. They command most of the food adult warblers bring to the nest, often at the expense of their own. Cowbird trapping efforts were halted this year due to declining cowbird numbers, and to save money, Rapai said. It is the first year in many that no trapping took place.

Federal money dries up once the warbler is delisted, but ongoing habitat work is needed on state and federal lands if Kirtland’s populations are to thrive. Scientists know them to be a conservation-dependent species; they require young jackpine of certain ages to nest successfully — on the ground under the lowest branches where they are hidden. When jackpines get older and taller, the warblers no longer nest under them.

State and federal land managers have agreed to continue to burn, cut, plant and manage as needed, if money can be found, according to Rapai. “We’re going to lose about $300,000 a year. And the revenue from harvesting jackpine (on state and federal lands) is less than the cost of the program,” Rapai said.

“Our job is to develop funding for continuing on the ground conservation efforts. Our focus has shifted from recovery to conservation. Everyone has been preparing for this eventual delisting.”

To learn more about the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, visit huronpines.org/alliance.


Howard Meyerson is managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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