Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Premature Proposal to Remove Endangered Species Act Protections from Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler has a breeding range that is intensely focused on early-growth jack pine forests in northern lower Michigan.  The bird evolved under a regime of fire which is how jack pines are able to reproduce.  Through the suppression of fire thanks in large part to Smokey the Bear, coupled with the rapid expansion of human populations, the range of the species was considerably reduced.  By the early 1980's for instance, Kirtland's Warbler nested in 6 counties in northern lower Michigan centered on Grayling, and Mio, Michigan.  Further confounding their habitat requirements, the birds nested solely in jack pine, only between 7 and 12 feet tall, and growing on only one or two distinct soil types.  

Confounding all of these ecological issues was the invasion of the breeding range by Brown-headed Cowbirds, a parasitic bird species that laid its eggs in the nest of Kirtland's Warblers, many times after removing warbler eggs from the nest.  Unable to tell the difference, adult warblers were incubating eggs and brooding the hatchlings, many times including 4 o 5 cowbird chicks and no warblers.  With the passage of time the combination of habitat loss and cowbird parasitism caused the Kirtland's Warbler numbers to plummet.

When I began doing research on this species in 1984 there were about 200 adult males in the population or 400 adult birds.  We estimated that at best there were about 500 or so Kirtland's Warblers in the world population.

Kirtland's Warbler was one of the first species of wildlife listed as Endangered or Threatened under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (and its earlier 1967 version).  Because of the habitat and cowbird control issues affecting its continued survival there was no species more deserving of Endangered Species Act protections than Kirtland's Warbler.

Although their numbers are increasing the same cannot be stated about the protection of its habitat.  Anyone familiar with the Endangered Species Act knows that the word "population" does not appear anywhere in the enabling legislation.  Yet, despite that fact, today I learned that the tRump Administration proposes to de-list (aka remove Endangered Species Act protections) from Kirtland's Warbler under the guise of its population now being at about 5,000 individuals.  

My agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is accepting comments from the public about this proposal and they will continue to do so through July 11, 2018.  This proposal is based on politics. It is not based on biology and not based on the verbiage in the Endangered Species Act.  The proposal is also another example of the continued assault on Endangered Species Act provisions and protections being perpetrated by the tRump Administration.

Below is my letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in which I strenuously object to the proposal on biological and statutory language grounds. If you care about the earth like I do, I encourage you to submit similar comments to the Service.  This is one of many times we will have to do this while tRump remains in office.  

The correct address for submitting your concerns is:

Public Comments Processing
Attn:  FWS-R3-ES-2018-0005
Mail Stop BPHC
US Fish and Wildlife Service
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, Virginia 22041-3803

Don't be shy and don't be bashful.  Tell my old agency exactly what you think.  Don't hold back.  Here is my letter.

Craig Faanes
Sarasota, Florida 34232

April 11, 2018

Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS–R3–ES–2018–0005
Mail Stop: BPHC
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, Virginia 22041–3803

Re:  Proposal to De-List the Kirtland’s Warbler and Remove Endangered Species Act Protection

Dear US Fish and Wildlife Service,

As a former US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, and project leader of Kirtland’s Warbler recovery research (when the Service had a research branch), I am appalled and dismayed by the proposal to de-list the Kirtland’s Warbler and remove its Endangered Species Act protections at this time.  You and everyone else in the Washington Office knows that this proposal is based on the political motivations of the tRump Administration and most likely the pressure being exerted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  If you could speak honestly with the public, we would all know this is part of the concerted effort to eviscerate Endangered Species protections and has nothing to do with biology.

Granted, the population of Kirtland’s Warbler has rebounded demonstrably since its precarious levels in the 1970s and early 1980s.  I distinctly remember heading to the Bahamas in the winter of 1984-1985 hoping to learn if habitat issues on the wintering range were to blame for the inability of the bird’s numbers to increase.  We touched down in Nassau with 500 birds in the entire world population and began to search for them in winter.  However please quote for me, the public, Interior Secretary Zinke, or the “president”, where in the Endangered Species Act the word “population” is mentioned as a legal criterion for listing or for de-listing.   It can’t be done because the word “population” is not in the Act.  If it was, there would be no justification for listing the Gray Bat as an endangered species because their numbers were astronomic.  What limited them then and limits them now is habitat.

The very same thing is true with Kirtland’s Warbler.   In the 1970s and 1980s, habitat was the limiting factor.  It wasn’t until the famous Mack Lake fire in the early 1980s, and the subsequent coming of age of the habitat after the fire, that Kirtland’s Warbler numbers began to rebound.  The Service established the Kirtland’s Warbler National Wildlife Refuge so we could have a handle on habitat management to enhance the population.  Much to the chagrin of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Forestry program, the State of Michigan began a more aggressive burning program to provide adequate habitat on a revolving cycle, similar to how natural fire cycles did when and as the bird evolved.  Once adequate habitat was provided, most of it through and under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, the bird’s numbers began to rebound.  The fact that news articles describe the happiness of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources over the proposal to de-list Kirtland’s Warbler should tell you in glaring terms where their passion and focus lies. It does not lie with recovering and sustaining the bird in perpetuity.

I am gravely concerned, as is anyone who cares about this bird more than they care about politics, that if Endangered Species Act protections are removed there will be no incentive to continue to manage habitat to ensure the species continued survival.  We the people know that any assurances provided by Interior Zinke or “president” tRump have as much validity as anything else they have said.

I am heartened to see that you recognize the importance of continuing to control Brown-headed Cowbird numbers in the main range of the species.  Because of human domination of the landscape we will have to continue to control cowbirds for as long as there is jack pine in northern Michigan, and Kirtland’s Warblers nesting in it.   Cowbird control does not come cheaply and what funds are available for control arise from the Endangered Species account.  What assurances do you have and more importantly does the warbler have, that those funds will continue to flow once Endangered Species Act protection is removed?

A recent article in the New York Times stated that this proposal will remove legal protections from the Kirtland’s Warbler.  At least for the moment that statement is false because the warbler will continue to be protected by the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 USC 703-712).  Although the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a strict liability law, there is NO mechanism in the Act to provide or secure funds to continue the cowbird control program (or the habitat management program for that matter).

The key to the eventual recovery and long-term survival of Kirtland’s Warbler is habitat protection and management coupled with Brown-headed Cowbird control and management.  Those vital components of Kirtland’s Warbler conservation cannot (and in the current Administration will not) remain in place or be viable if the warbler is de-listed.

We all like to celebrate Endangered Species Act victories like the de-listing of the Bald Eagle or the Peregrine Falcon.  However right now, in the current political climate and with the people at the helm controlling the Act and its implementation, removing Endangered Species Act protections from Kirtland’s Warbler is tantamount to biological suicide.  Do the biologically correct thing, not the tRumpian political thing, and eliminate this premature proposal from your files.  If you need someone to write the Federal Register notice announcing that you have changed your mind, I’ll happily write it for you.

Should you be keeping a tally of “for” comments and “against” comments, please place my comments in the “vehemently against” pile.